International collaborations to develop technologies of tomorrow

Heriot-Watt researchers working on a quantum communications system

Leading UK researchers will work with international collaborators to develop the technologies of tomorrow through 12 projects announced today.

They include:

  • ultracold molecule quantum computing
  • advanced emission sensors
  • cyber-secure electric vehicles.

Collaborators range from NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US to Australia’s University of Sydney, Japan’s Riken and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Germany.

Addressing technology challenges

Among the technology challenges they aim to address are:

Monitoring Earth’s emissions and climate

Researchers at the University of Exeter will work with partners including the US National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center for Metamaterials (CfM) and NASA.

They will develop advanced materials called metamaterials that can be adapted and reconfigured.

Potential uses include so-called ‘hyper-spectral’ sensors capable of analysing a wide spectrum of light to monitor Earth’s emissions and climate from space.

Quantum computers

A team from Durham University, Imperial College London and University of Oxford will work with US collaborators at Harvard University and the University of Colorado Boulder.

They will use ultracold molecules as the building blocks for quantum computers.

Communication networks

Researchers at the Universities of Sheffield, Strathclyde and Bath will work with US collaborators at Harvard and MIT to develop advanced visible light communications.

It is a revolutionary new form of communication network which could provide bandwidth three orders of magnitude larger than conventional Wi-Fi or 5G.

Better medicines

Researchers at the University of Leeds will work with the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Germany and the Rosalind Franklin Institute.

They will develop a new way to create better medicines to treat conditions ranging from cancer to infectious diseases, more quickly.

Electric vehicles

A project team from Newcastle and Cardiff universities in the UK will work with the University of Sydney and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia.

Their project aims to ensure electric vehicles using the Internet of Things are protected from cyber attacks

Developing pioneering solutions

Science Minister George Freeman said:

From improving cancer treatment and generating clean growth to designing the communication networks of tomorrow, UK science, technology and innovation is developing pioneering solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.

These 12 international projects will harness the expertise of the UK’s world-leading researchers and global collaborators, helping us accelerate our path to an innovation nation and underline our position as a science superpower.

World-leading researchers

The 12 projects are funded by a £17 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Partners are providing cash and in-kind contributions.

Each brings together some of the world’s leading research groups, in the UK and internationally, to catalyse cutting-edge research and develop engineering and technological applications.

They include three quantum science and technology projects that build on the UK’s £1 billion public and private investment in this field as part of the National Quantum Technologies Programme. This includes a £650 million investment through UKRI.

Transforming the way we live

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said:

From better, cheaper medicines to powerful quantum computers and next-generation communications networks, these new technologies have the potential to transform the way we live.

By bringing together world-leading researchers to deliver ground-breaking science and engineering solutions, these projects will generate impact that will be felt across all of society.

Funded projects

The 12 projects are:

  • developing molecular quantum technologies
  • monolithic on-chip integration of microscale laser diodes and electronics for micro-displays and visible light communications
  • autonomous phenotype-directed molecular discovery
  • UK-Australia centre in a secure internet of energy: supporting electric vehicle infrastructure at the ‘edge’ of the grid
  • International Clock and Oscillator Networking (ICON)
  • Ultrafast Single-photon detection for Quantum Applications (USQA)
  • manufacturing by design
  • A-Meta: A UK-US collaboration for active metamaterials research
  • Digital Design and Manufacture of Amorphous Pharmaceuticals (DDMAP)
  • enabling individualised surgical treatment of osteoarthritis
  • Advancing optimisation technologies through international collaboration (ADOPT)
  • advanced optical frequency comb technologies and applications.

Read the full project summaries in the ‘Further information’ section.

Further information

Full project summaries

Developing molecular quantum technologies

Led by: Professor Simon Cornish, Durham University

Partners:

  • Imperial College London
  • University of Oxford
  • Harvard University (US)
  • JILA at the University of Colorado Boulder (US).

EPSRC funding: £1.6 million

Ultracold molecules, cooled to within a millionth of a degree of absolute zero, hold great promise for a variety of quantum technologies.

The rich internal structure and long-range interactions of molecules make them particularly suited as the building blocks of a new generation of quantum computers and quantum simulators.

This international collaboration aims to overcome the scientific and technical challenges that lie between current experimental platforms and these exciting applications.

The researchers aim to learn how to control interactions and collisions between molecules and atoms, to further cool molecules to the lowest motional trap states.

They plan to prepare molecules in optical lattices utilising many particles that would share their quantum state and act together, enabling the simulation of novel quantum phenomena beyond the reach of classical machines.

They also aim to develop new ways of assembling and storing individual molecules in arrays of optical tweezer traps.

This approach will allow quantum gate operations between neighbouring molecules to be engineered, the essential ingredient for a molecule-based quantum computer.

Monolithic on-chip integration of microscale laser diodes and electronics for micro-displays and visible light communications

Led by: Professor Tao Wang, University of Sheffield

Partners:

  • University of Strathclyde
  • University of Bath
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

EPSRC funding: £1.5 million

The consortium aims to develop a novel technology that will underpin advanced communication devices and systems for use in our personal devices and communications networks.

The micro-displays used in smart phones and watches, and augmented and virtual reality, are limited by demands for ultra-high resolution and ultra-high efficiency that push the boundaries of what can currently be achieved.

VLC could potentially offer bandwidth more than three orders of magnitude larger than conventional Wi-Fi or 5G.

However, it is similarly constrained as current methods utilise LED technologies which have only limited potential.

The researchers aim to overcome these barriers by designing single chips where laser pulses are electrically driven by high electron mobility transistors.

This allows for the creation of devices and systems which are currently impossible to obtain.

Autonomous phenotype-directed molecular discovery

Led by: Professor Adam Nelson, University of Leeds

Partners:

  • Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology (Germany)
  • Rosalind Franklin Institute.

EPSRC funding: £1.2 million

There are many challenges associated with the development of new medicines, in areas of unmet need such as cancer, degeneration and infectious disease treatment.

These range from:

  • the complexity of selecting protein targets associated with particular diseases
  • the large costs and timescales needed to progress from laboratory to patient (typically about £2 billion and 12 years for each new drug).

Around half of new drugs are inspired in some way by naturally-occurring bioactive molecules; natural products that have an extraordinary structural and functional diversity.

The project will mimic nature’s approach but will harness reactions that can explore structures inaccessible to nature’s enzyme chemistry.

Hundreds of reactions will be performed in parallel, and the products prioritised solely on the basis of their biological effects.

Through this approach, the team aims to discover new chemical tools that can provide insights into disease biology, and to develop new ways to secure better medicines more quickly.

UK-Australia centre in a secure internet of energy: supporting electric vehicle infrastructure at the ‘edge’ of the grid

Led by: Professor Rajiv Ranjan, Newcastle University

Partners:

  • Cardiff University
  • University of Sydney (Australia)
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) (Australia).

EPSRC funding: £1.5 million

The Internet of Energy (IoE), utilising the principles of the Internet of Things, will play an important role in a net zero future by optimising energy usage across transport and energy networks.

IoE will utilise emerging distributed learning algorithms that can operate on data in a secure and efficient manner to learn vehicle charging and usage patterns.

This includes use of electric vehicles, where IoE can be used to process data on energy consumption and generation.

It supports drivers in their charging decisions and influencing driving behaviours and energy efficiency of vehicles.

IoE will require a secure and privacy preserving connection to the national grid and charging infrastructure.

With increasing cyberattacks involving vehicles are their supporting infrastructure, there is an increasing requirement to address these challenges in a holistic manner, involving both vehicle usage and energy infrastructure.

This project will bring together expertise across the UK and Australia.

It brings together expertise across energy systems, distributed computing, Internet of Things, machine learning and cybersecurity to:

  • understand the connectivity across energy and transport networks
  • develop approaches needed to make electric vehicles and related infrastructure cyber secure.

This will be achieved by modelling cyberthreats on IoE systems, and developing preventative measures using an ensemble of distributed artificial intelligence techniques.

These approaches will be validated on a real-world testbed across the UK and Australian partner sites.

International Clock and Oscillator Networking (ICON)

Led by: Professor Kai Bongs, University of Birmingham

Partners:

  • University of Nottingham
  • NPL
  • Riken (Japan)
  • University of Tokyo (Japan)
  • University of Düsseldorf (Germany)
  • PTB (Physikalisch Technische Bundesanstalt) (Germany)
  • Technical University Munich (Germany).

EPSRC funding: £1.5 million

Optical clocks promise a revolution in timing accuracy and have a variety of uses, from helping planes navigate to locating vehicles and items with the utmost precision.

However, while the clock technology is progressing rapidly, there is still more to be understood about how the precision can be transferred to users in a practical and efficient way.

Microwave links, such as those used in satellites, are impractically slow for the required precision.

Optical fibre links require expensive, dedicated connections and are limited to 100km, making intercontinental connections impractical.

ICON brings together world-leading transportable optical clocks and world-leading optical link space infrastructure to explore the limits of precision time transfer.

Including work on making transportable clocks more compact and robust with world-leading atom chip concepts, it aims to bring precision time to everyone.

First researchers relying on precision oscillators and later in commercial applications for the benefit of wider society.

These include resilient time provision for critical national infrastructure, including:

  • precise timing for ultra-high broadband telecoms networks
  • trusted timestamping in financial transactions
  • maritime navigation services.

Ultrafast Single-photon detection for Quantum Applications (USQA)

Led by: Professor Gerald Buller, Heriot-Watt University

Partners:

  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) (US)
  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech) (US).

EPSRC funding: £1.3 million

Single-photon detection is rapidly emerging as a critical capability for a variety of quantum technologies and low-light sensing applications.

Detectors that are capable of measuring the single quantum of light, the photon, are critical to many quantum technologies.

These technologies include:

  • quantum communications systems which connect remote quantum processors
  • quantum-enhanced imaging approaches for uses such as medical imaging or to detect objects that are faint or behind barriers.

The project will link three centres of excellence in quantum photonics.

It will deploy the state-of-the-art optical detectors and detector arrays developed by the JPL and Caltech in areas of quantum technology being pioneered at Heriot-Watt.

These include quantum communications, including satellite to ground links, and real-time 3D imaging at the single-photon level.

The project will also use these state-of-the-art detectors to investigate the limits of quantum entanglement, a fundamental property of quantum mechanics that forms the backbone of modern quantum technologies.

In particular, the project will study the entanglement of structured light in space and time and apply it to emerging next-generation quantum applications in imaging and communications.

Manufacturing by design

Led by: Professor Philip Withers, The University of Manchester

Partners: European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (France)

EPSRC funding: £1.6 million

Our ability to locate small critical defects in highly engineered materials, such as in batteries and composite materials, is limited.

Current methods using x-ray CT can only identify them accurately in small-scale samples.

The defects identified and addressed in an additively manufactured test sample, for example, can be very different to those that would appear in an engineering component made using the same process.

In lithium-ion batteries, such critical defects have led to issues such as the thermal runaway, where heat from a failing cell caused both itself and surrounding cells to fail, leading to rapid overheating.

This collaboration aims to increase the volume of material that can be x-ray imaged to identify defects by up to a million-fold.

It will also improve our understanding of how defects are introduced during manufacture and assembly.

Focusing on additive manufacturing, composite materials manufacturing and battery manufacturing, the researchers also aim to identify the evolution of defects through different processes.

They will design smarter manufacturing techniques tailored to meet the needs of individual parts and architecture and reduce the instance of defects.

A-Meta: A UK-US collaboration for active metamaterials research

Led by: Professor Alastair Hibbins, University of Exeter

Partners:

  • National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center for Metamaterials (US)
  • Airbus
  • BAE Systems
  • Ball Aerospace (US)
  • Bodkin Design
  • British Telecommunications
  • The City University of New York (US)
  • Dstl
  • Metamaterial Technologies
  • Ventures (Merck) (Netherlands)
  • NASA (US)
  • Oxford Instruments
  • Phoebus Optoelectronics (US)
  • QinetiQ
  • Thales
  • Transense Technologies
  • Wave Optics.

EPSRC funding: £1.5 million

Metamaterials are carefully structured materials with characteristics that can be engineered in at the point of design, with properties that may even be beyond those found in nature.

They have potential in a wide range of applications from telecommunications and aerospace to medical, energy and camouflage.

The metamaterial device market is expected to reach a value of more than $10 billion by 2030.

Their functionality is, however, fixed at the time of manufacture, making it hard to adapt them in light of the need for multifunctionality and reconfigurability among many of today’s applications.

The project aims to develop tunable, reconfigurable and programmable metamaterials that can be altered to respond to external stimuli or change their functionality to meet specific requirements.

Examples include:

  • enabling the development of faster and more energy efficient optical computing
  • the development of compact and multifunctional sensors for uses including atmospheric monitoring and the detection of toxins
  • real-time image manipulation and processing in augmented reality systems
  • reconfigurable devices to increase wireless network capacity.

Digital Design and Manufacture of Amorphous Pharmaceuticals (DDMAP)

Led by: Professor Alastair Florence, University of Strathclyde

Partners:

  • University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • Ghent University (Belgium).

EPSRC funding: £1.2 million

Amorphous materials are rigid and can hold their shape like solids but have disordered atomic structures like liquids.

They have huge potential in medicines manufacturing where they could be used to improve the processing and overall performance of drugs, in particular treatments which are taken orally such as tablets and capsules.

The project aims to deliver on this promise.

It will use a range of characterisation methods, modelling approaches and machine learning to understand the structure and properties of amorphous drugs and develop new methods of manufacturing involving 3D printing and other techniques.

Researchers will use biorelevant media that mimic conditions within the stomach and intestines to understand the mechanisms involved in the release of amorphous drugs in the body.

The data and knowledge generated will allow them to determine better ways to use amorphous materials to design and make dosage forms with controlled stability and predictable, precise delivery of medicines to patients.

Enabling individualised surgical treatment of osteoarthritis

Led by: Professor Ruth Wilcox, University of Leeds

Partners: The Center for Orthopaedic Biomechanics, University of Denver

EPSRC funding: £1.2 million

Osteoarthritis affects more than 8 million people in the UK, with treatment estimated to cost the NHS more than £10 billion a year.

This project aims to significantly improve the outcomes of surgical treatments for osteoarthritis by optimising the performance of implants such as hip and knee replacements.

The project will integrate experimental and computer modelling methods across two leading international centres.

It will use personalised approaches to evaluate implants under more realistic conditions representing a wide range of daily activities.

As well as improving hip and knee implant design to enhance patient quality of life, the project will also build the evidence needed for advanced musculoskeletal therapies in the future.

Advancing optimisation technologies through international collaboration (ADOPT)

Led by: Professor Benoit Chachuat, Imperial College London

Partners: RWTH Aachen University, UCL

EPSRC funding: £1.3 million

The interconnected nature of today’s supply chains and increased competition across the process industries pose a growing challenge for decision-makers.

The need to ensure reliability and economic competitiveness must be balanced against minimising resource and energy usage among other environmental impacts.

Detailed mathematical models of physical and engineered processes to help quantify this balance are often too complex to see beyond ‘what if?’ scenario analysis.

ADOPT brings together internationally-leading research groups.

They will develop new, sophisticated algorithms that build on global optimisation, machine learning, and uncertainty quantification to fully exploit these models.

Use cases driven by specific challenges in molecular engineering and smart manufacturing will be used as demonstrators.

Advanced optical frequency comb technologies and applications

Led by: Professor Sergei Turitsyn, Aston University

Partners:

  • University of Nice Sophia Antipolis (France)
  • University of Lille (France).

EPSRC funding: £1.7 million

Optical frequency comb technology measures exact frequencies of light.

It was proposed and demonstrated nearly two decades ago but is not yet an area of intensive research due to a variety of new scientific concepts and engineering solutions.

The project aims to overcome barriers to the existing technology and develop new advanced methods with a research programme spanning from new concepts and designs to demonstrations of practical applications of frequency combs including:

  • metrology
  • telecommunications
  • gas sensing
  • sensing for food industry.

This project has the ambitious goal to revolutionise the high-speed, high-resolution spectroscopy.

It will develop a new family of light sources with improved robustness, performance and versatility to allow for wider adoption in a wide range of different fields.

Top image:  Heriot-Watt researchers working on a quantum communications system (credit: Heriot-Watt University)

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