Johnson announces £21 million for Engineering Grand Challenges research

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Seven new research programmes that aim to tackle some of the UK’s major science and engineering challenges were given the green light today by the Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson.

Academics, industrialists and policy makers will address issues such as:

  • how to ensure clean water supplies in the UK and around the world
  • how new ways of using robotics and autonomous systems can restore the balance between engineered and natural systems in the cities of the future
  • how to understand the nature of new meta-materials and advanced materials for use in electronic systems and the manufacture of new devices
  • how to understand the complexity and interconnectedness of systems, identify critical and vulnerable dependencies, prevent their failure and improve their resilience and reliability.

Funded by £21 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the research consortia will involve nineteen UK universities and eighty partners. They will begin work in December and are supported by an additional £11 million investment from industry to bring the total level of support to £32 million..

The projects were developed in response to a call, Towards Engineering Grand Challenges: Network and Multidisciplinary Research Consortia, from EPSRC in early 2015 which listed four Engineering Grand Challenges. These were developed at a special two-day event in 2014 involving academics from many disciplines, representatives from industry and government.

The Universities and Science Minister announced the funding during a visit to the University of Cambridge, who will be leading the £4.1 million project to manage air-flow in cities to reduce pollution and enhance air quality within cities.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: As a One Nation Government we are investing in world-class science and engineering across our country. We want the UK to be the best place in Europe to innovate and this £21 million investment will bring together the nation’s researchers to address some of the most pressing engineering challenges we face. From ground-breaking work with robotics to advanced air-flow simulators, this investment will help tackle our aging water infrastructure and air pollution in cities to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Professor Philip Nelson, EPSRC's Chief Executive, said; Economic and political forces will shape the world of the future but these are often led and influenced by advances in science and engineering. The projects announced today will help us plan and maintain our cities, reduce our energy consumption and develop new materials, innovative devices and technology. The UK has world-leading academic talent to enlist in the challenges we face as a country and as a species. Investing in research is investing in the UK's future.

The projects are:

TWENTY 65: Tailored Water Solutions for Positive Impact

Led by University of Sheffield - £3.9 million

Principal Investigator: Joby Boxall

Other universities: Newcastle, Imperial, Exeter, Manchester, Reading

The consortium aims to develop solutions to make the UK's aging water infrastructure more resilient to future needs; these include climate change, population increase and interdependencies with other infrastructures (food and energy). They will develop a framework of 'tailored solutions' for the different scenarios through robotics, systems and chemical engineering research amongst others. The key feature of this consortium is the collaboration with the water industry including Thames Water, Northumbrian Water, Scottish and Welsh Water - that such a large number of water companies work collaboratively with research is unique in the sector and is the recognition of the industry of the need to innovate in order to address such a critical challenge.

Managing Air for Green Inner Cities

Led by University of Cambridge - £4.1 million

Principal Investigator: Paul Linden

Other universities: Imperial, Surrey

The consortium focuses on the management of air in cities, this will enable to reduce pollution and enhance air quality within cities. It will also prevent "heat island" effect from which large cities such as London already suffer. The researchers will build on expertise in fluid dynamics to model air flows in cities, how these interact with the built environment - the end product will be a suite of models which will enable urban planners to understand how they can manage the environment by including green spaces, the impact of this on the transport network and how the network can be adapted to reduce urban pollution.

Balancing the impact of City Infrastructure Engineering on Natural systems using Robots

Led by University of Leeds - £4.2 million

Principal Investigator Phil Purnell

Other universities: UCL, Birmingham, Southampton

The consortium aims to develop novel robotics and autonomous systems technologies in a traditional sector such as infrastructure management and repair. The system will be able to sense, diagnose and repair different aspects of infrastructure (eg potholes or utility pipes).

It brings together expertise in civil, mechanical, materials and electrical engineering. Working with Leeds City Council and the UKCRIC 'Living Lab' will provide a platform on which to test these technologies taking into consideration the social aspects to make sure they are introduced in a safe and responsible manner.

The consortium brings together researchers from Birmingham, Southampton and UCL - and builds on a number of other projects (Assessing the Underworld, iBuild and ICIF) which additionally involve Newcastle, Sussex, Sheffield, Bristol, Bath and Cranfield.

SYnthesizing 3D METAmaterials for RF, microwave and THz applications (SYMETA)

Led by Loughborough University £3.9 million

Principal Investigator: Yiannis Vardaxoglou

Other universities: Exeter, Oxford, Sheffield, QMUL

The consortium aims to radically evolve the development of high frequency circuits for systems and how these are manufactured. Using advanced materials research to understand how meta-materials behave and can be used for future electronic engineering purposes. Understanding the behaviour of the materials at the atomic scale will allow the creation of new types of circuits or transmission lines which are the bedrock of our technology driven economy. A more rationale and sustainable use of materials will reduce waste, timescales and most importantly cost of the manufacturing processes involved.

Engineering van der Waals heterostructures: from atomic level layer-by-layer assembly to printable innovative devices

Led by The University of Manchester - £4 million

Principal Investigator: Konstantin Novoselov

Other universities: Lancaster, Cambridge

The consortium will develop new composite materials which can be assembled and printed in innovative ways. The research will develop an understanding on the behaviour of materials from an atomic scale (a 2D single layer of atoms) which can be easily printed to much more complex large structures. These materials will have use in a number of areas - a key target will be the electronic devices industries as they will able to develop much smaller and adaptable sensors, resulting in a better connected nation through the internet of things.

BRIM: Building Resilience Into risk Management

Led by Exeter University - £400,000

Principal Investigator: Guangtao Fu

Other universities: Loughborough, Cranfield

This network will bring together researchers to better understand the tipping points of systems - particular infrastructure. It will allow researchers to grow a network of network approach which will enable the modelling of complex scenarios; for example the 2014 winter floods' impact on the social and transport networks and other knock-on effects. This will help policy makers to gain a better understanding of the risks and critical interdependencies and prioritise interventions after various events - this will enable a more productive asset management approach.

Engineering Complexity Resilience Network Plus (ENCORE)

Led by University of Sheffield - £500,000

Principal Investigator: Martin Mayfield

Other universities: Cranfield, Durham, Strathclyde

Advancements in mathematics, analytics and predictive modelling are improving our understanding of complex natural systems, such as climate, economics and health, but this has yet to be applied in a focused way to the complex engineered systems that underpin modern society, from cities, transport, energy and digital networks to jet engines and nuclear submarines.

The new Engineering Complexity Resilience Network Plus (ENCORE) will bring together expertise from researchers in complex engineering systems, complexity science and natural systems with designers and managers of complex engineered systems to help us understand the emergent behaviour of such systems and improve their performance and resilience.

Notes for Editors

Working with the research and user community throughout 2014 the EPSRC Engineering Theme identified four Grand Challenges:

  • Challenge 1: Sustainable engineering solutions to provide water for all;
  • Challenge 2: Future Cities: engineering approaches that restore the balance between engineered and natural systems; and,
  • Challenge 3: Engineering across length scales, from atoms to applications.
  • Challenge 4: Identifying risk and building resilience into engineered systems.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate.

By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

Reference: PN: 54-15

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