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Five researchers from MPLS Division have been awarded major European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants to fund cutting-edge projects.

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The highly-coveted awards, funded through the European Union, are each worth more than 1 million euros and will allow the researchers to build their own teams, carry out pioneering research, and expand learning into exciting new areas.  

Dr Natalia Ares from the Department of Materials has been awarded a grant for her project entitled ‘Quantum Thermodynamics in the Solid-state’.

Dr Ares aims to link motion with heat and work in the nanoscale. Although classical thermodynamics has been established since the 19th century, quantum thermodynamics is still in its infancy experimentally, due to the lack of control over thermodynamic processes in this regime. Harnessing electromechanical circuits in the solid-state, Natalia will build a platform to study the efficiency and power of quantum engines. This platform could inform the study of biomotors and the design of efficient on-chip nanomachines . It will pave the way for experimental tests to concepts such as work in the quantum regime, quantum fluctuations and autonomous machines. The research will have applications in both classical and quantum computing.

Read more in the Science blog: - 'Nanoscale engines far colder than even deepest outer space'.

Dr Brianna Heazlewood from the Department of Chemistry has been awarded a Starting Grant for her project entitled 'Taming the reaction dynamics of paramagnetic species'.

Radicals are paramagnetic species – atoms or molecules with an unpaired electron – and they are prevalent in gas-phase environments such as the atmosphere, combustion systems and the interstellar medium. In spite of their real-world importance, very few experimental methods can be applied to the precise study of gas-phase radical reactions. This is primarily due to the significant challenges associated with such studies; there are no established methods for generating a pure beam of atomic or molecular gas-phase radicals with tuneable properties. Breanna's research proposal provides a solution by developing a versatile and innovative “magnetic guide”, for the generation of a pure and state-selected beam of radicals. The magnetic guide will feature a series of specially-designed permanent magnets (Halbach arrays) and skimming blades. It will act as a stand-alone device, producing a pure beam of radicals with continuously tuneable velocity from an effusive mixture (containing radicals, precursor molecules and seed gases). The magnetic guide will be combined with two existing experiments – an ion trap and a liquid-surface set-up – and will enable her to study ion-radical and radical-liquid surface interactions with unprecedented control and precision. This will include examining important gas-phase reactions involving radicals in isolation (i.e. without competing side reactions) for the first time. These measurements will provide the missing experimental data needed to improve the accuracy of (for example) complex atmospheric chemistry models – replacing untested predictions from capture theory calculations.

Rob Weatherup, an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials, has been awarded a Starting Grant for his project entitled ‘Extending Interface Science to Atmospheric-pressure Reactions’ (EXISTAR).

This aims to develop new characterisation techniques to observe the interfaces between materials and their environment during operation.

These interfaces determine the performance of materials used for storing energy in batteries or removing toxic gases from car exhausts, but the dense liquid or gas environments they are surrounded by makes them hard to observe with existing techniques. Rob’s project will develop special windows that are transparent to X-rays, electrons and neutrons, through which the chemical reactions occurring on the surface of electrodes in batteries and on catalysts in high temperature reactors can be observed. This will help us to understand how current materials can be improved and why certain combinations of materials fail faster than others.

A huge range of research problems can potentially benefit from these new interface-sensitive techniques, but Rob’s initial focus will be sustainable technologies that are needed for a low-carbon economy. This includes low-cost, safe battery systems to store the energy of intermittent renewable energy sources for when it is needed, and identifying new catalysts that can be used to convert waste carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral liquid fuels and chemicals. Progress in these areas is key to meeting our emissions targets and limiting the extent of man-made climate change in the future.

Dr Charlotte Kirchhelle from the Department of Plant Sciences has been awarded a grant for her project entitled 'Edge-based mechanisms coordinating cell wall assembly during plant morphogenesis'. Charlotte uses an interdisciplinary approach combining classic molecular biology with state-of-the-art quantitative imaging and computational modelling to study how organisms develop the diverse anatomical shapes observed in nature. Her research focuses on the recently identified role of cell geometric edges.

Dr Lorenzo Tancredi from the Department of Physics has been awarded a grant for his project entitled 'High-Energy Physics at the Frontier with Mathematics'. Lorenzo is a theoretical particle physicist, interested in mathematical methods in perturbative Quantum Field Theory and their application to collider physics.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “With European Research Council grants, the EU is leveraging the talent and curiosity of some of the best young researchers in Europe. Their ideas are set to break fresh ground and open new ways to deal with pressing challenges in the areas of health, energy and digital technologies, as well as many other fields. Our ambition to effectively tackle current and future crises depends on our strong will to continuously and increasingly support top research at the frontiers of our knowledge.”

Find out more about the ERC Starting Grants 2020 grants