Lens on Research and Innovation - Text Version

Welcome to LoRI

EPSRC invests around £800M a year in research and postgraduate training across a broad remit covering fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. EPSRC Lens on Research and Innovation (LoRI) is an interactive graphic that allows you to explore this portfolio through either a sector or lifestyle lens. By scrolling over the graphic and selecting sectors or areas of interest to you, key facts and figures, case studies and short videos will appear that demonstrate the breadth and impact of the investments we have made in this area. If you want to find out more, just follow the link or contact the LoRI team.

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Electricity, Gas and Water

Key Facts and Figures

The whole energy system faces massive changes to deliver against all aspects of the ‘trilemma’ — cost, security and decarbonisation. Under a smart, flexible system, external estimates suggest that overall system costs could be reduced in the order of tens of billions (£) in the period to 2050. In addition, the development of novel smart water management solutions will underpin the future successes of the global smart water market, a sector expected to be worth over US$22 billion by 2020

EPSRC’s research approach to the utilities sector aims to develop cohesion and understanding particularly when considering the whole UK energy system where its priorities are to address the complexities, interactions and interdependencies within the energy landscape and its connections with other systems. Design and optimisation of technologies relating to water resource management, treatment and distribution systems is the focus for EPSRC water engineering research with an Engineering Grand Challenge around Sustainable Engineering Solutions to Provide Clean Water for All.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Water Engineering and Whole Systems research areas.

Pipework monitor spin-out sold for over £30 million

Permasense Ltd, a company formed in 2009 to commercialise industrial process monitoring technology for use in harsh conditions, pioneered by Dr Frederic Cegla while an EPSRC-supported doctoral student at Imperial College London, has been sold to Fortune 500 company Emerson for over £30 million.

  • Over 18,000 corrosion sensors sold globally; enhancing safety and increasing profitability
  • Key clients include Shell, BP and Total
  • Technology employed in over 30 countries, and in 180 plants worldwide
  • Company named in Sunday Times ‘One to Watch’ Tech Track Top 10

With a roster of multinational customers such as Shell, Total and BP (which supported the underpinning research), the company pioneered technology capable of monitoring industrial systems operating under extremely harsh conditions, without the need for costly closures and inspections.

Permasense’s proprietary sensor technology continuously monitors metal loss from corrosion or erosion, and transmits the data it acquires wirelessly – providing high integrity information, particularly in difficult environments at high temperatures.

Many industrial processes, such as power generation and crude oil refining, operate at very high temperatures – exceeding several hundred degrees Celsius. These harsh environments cause corrosion and erosion of components and pipework, which need to be routinely inspected to avoid potentially fatal failures. Usually this means plants have to be shut down during the inspection period, which can cost millions of pounds per day as the plant cannot produce products when it is not operating.

The components that need monitoring are often difficult to access. Preparation work – such as building scaffolding and removing insulation – is required before inspections are carried out.

To address this challenge, the Permasense team developed a sensor system which uses permanently installed wireless ultrasonic sensors that can withstand high temperatures. They have been engineered to work in temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius. By contrast, conventional sensors can only withstand temperatures of around 100 degrees Celsius.

The system only needs to be installed once, incurring a one-off cost. It can then monitor components continuously, without the need for costly routine inspections.

Permasense was formed in 2009 by Dr Frederic Cegla, Dr Jon Allin and Professor Peter Cawley from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London, with the help of Imperial Innovations. Since coming to market, the company has achieved global success, and its technology has become the market leader and a global standard. In 2015, Permasense featured as one of the 10 ‘Ones to Watch’ in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100 list.

Permasense systems are now used in over 180 plants worldwide, and more than 18,000 sensors have been sold, with more than 20 million measurements taken. The company’s main customers are from the oil and gas industry, but it has also sold to power generation companies and materials processing companies.

Dr Cegla describes balancing his role as both academic and entrepreneur as both challenging and rewarding. He says: “I have learned an awful lot. Such as how businesses operate; how we can create technology that delivers value to industry; how to sell stuff; how to manufacture and produce products; how to create reliability in engineering processes, and the importance of academic findings for industry.

“In hindsight, the constant learning process was one of the best things about being involved in the company.”

Read the full Case Study

World's first flying drone for plugging pipeline leaks

Worldwide, 25 per cent of drinking water is lost through leaking water pipelines. To tackle this problem, Talib Alhinai, a research postgraduate at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Laboratory, and his colleagues created the world’s first flying drone able to plug pipeline leaks.

  • Award-winning technology is the world’s first autonomous flying vehicle able to plug pipeline leaks
  • The technology has multiple applications, such as in the oil and gas industry
  • The system could increase time and cost savings while improving safety
  • Part of wider research into autonomous drones capable of printing structures in 3D while in flight

Talib’s devices are equipped with a stabilisation system that allows the drones to approach objects and deposit material in mid-air, making them more stable, robust and precise than conventional drones.

The aircraft have a payload of lightweight builders’ foam, carried in liquid form. Once the drone is in position, the foam is released, expanding to 25 times its original size – quickly plugging leaks without need for hands-on human intervention. The technology has multiple applications, such as in the oil and gas industry.

Talib’s work was supervised by his PhD adviser and director of the Aerial Robotics Lab, Dr Mirko Kovac, whose leadership has been pivotal in the development of versatile autonomous flying robots capable of printing structures in 3D while in flight. EPSRC has invested over £5 million in Dr Kovac’s research for the aerial manufacturing project, which is also supported by industrial partners.

Compared to current methods requiring humans to maintain pipelines, the team’s approach offers major time and cost savings while simultaneously reducing risks to engineers when doing inspection and repair tasks, especially of chemical leaks from pipeline networks.

Talib was part of the Builddrone team together with Pisak Chermprayong, Rob Siddall and Mirko Kovac, who won first prize, and a cheque for one million dihrams (around £200,000), at the 2016 UAE Drones for Good competition. In September 2017 the MIT Technology Review featured Talib Alhinai on its list of 35 Innovators Under 35, selected from more than 1,100 applicants. He was also named as one of Forbes business magazine’s 30 under 30 list of young European leaders, inventors and entrepreneurs who are transforming society. He later won a Future Star award from Arabian Business magazine.

Read the full Case Study


Key Facts and Figures

Good transport infrastructure does not just reduce delays, it can raise productivity by enabling towns and cities to achieve agglomeration effects, and so support the rebalancing of the UK economy. In recent years, the UK’s performance has been rated poorly compared with other developed countries and business highlights it as a key issue.

EPSRC’s research portfolio in this sector recognises that future sustainability and resilience relies on a whole-system approach to transport, transport systems and supporting infrastructure. Research priorities include improving the performance, capacity and connectivity of transport networks and taking a holistic view of cities and their systems, including dependencies between them and critical infrastructure.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Infrastructure and urban systems research area.

Cutting harmful diesel engine nitrogen oxide emissions

EPSRC-supported researchers at Loughborough University have developed an industry-first technology with the potential to significantly cut nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in diesel engines.

  • Use of the NOx reduction system could significantly reduce tailpipe emissions
  • SCR system, while tailored for HGVs, is scalable for use in all diesel vehicles
  • Diesel engine emissions have led to over 50,000 additional deaths in the UK

The Government estimates that exposure to NOx and particulate matter emissions from diesel engines has led to over 50,000 additional deaths in the UK. Currently almost all new diesel vehicles are fitted with a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system to try and remove NOx produced by combustion. This system uses a product known as AdBlue™ to safely provide the ammonia required to reduce NOx into harmless nitrogen and water.

The drawback is that AdBlue™ only functions well at high exhaust temperatures, typically in excess of 250ºC. Therefore, the SCR does not necessarily operate at all engine conditions, for example, during short, stop-start commutes, particularly in urban areas or on construction sites.

Use of AdBlue™ at these problematic lower temperatures can also result in severe exhaust blockages and subsequent engine damage.

Now, Professor Graham Hargrave and Research Associate Jonathan Wilson have developed an AdBlue™ conversion technology that uses waste energy to modify it to work effectively at these lower exhaust temperatures. By greatly extending the temperature range at which SCR systems can operate the new Ammonia Creation and Conversion Technology (ACCT) significantly, enhances existing NOx reduction systems.

No viable alternative to the diesel engine currently exists for the heavy duty market and diesel is going to be in use for many more years. The technology, while tailored for HGVs, is scalable for use in all diesel vehicles.

Research Associate, Jonathan Wilson, says: “Our system enables the SCR systems to work at temperatures as low as 60oC. This means that the NOx reduction system remains active through the whole real-world driving cycle, leading to significant reductions in tailpipe emissions.”

ACCT has won The Engineer 2017 Collaborate to Innovate Transportation Award and the Times Higher Education 2017 Technology Innovation of the Year Award.

Useful links

Read the full Case Study

Driving down freight emissions

Researchers at the EPSRC Centre for Sustainable Road Freight (SRF) at the University of Cambridge, working with leading supermarket chain, Waitrose, have developed a more aerodynamic trailer design for articulated vehicles – cutting fuel consumption and pollution by around seven per cent.

  • New freight trailer design results in 14 per cent reduction in aerodynamic drag and three to six per cent reduction in rolling resistance
  • Modified vehicles consume seven per cent less fuel, resulting in lower CO2 emissions
  • Waitrose has already added 36 of the modified trucks to its fleet

To accurately gauge how the truck moves through the air, the SRF team used a novel water tank test facility. The team created a short video to show this research in action.

A vital feature of the SRF’s work is its close links with the freight industry, which has invested £1.4 million in an industrial consortium comprising freight operators such as DHL, John Lewis Partnership, Tesco and Wincanton, as well as vehicle industry partners including Firestone, Goodyear, Haldex and Volvo. These companies help set the research agenda as well as the pace in the adoption of results.

With fuel representing, on average, 45 per cent of operating costs, and with aggressive emission-reduction targets set by government, the road freight industry has substantial incentives to minimise its use of energy.

David Cebon, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, says: “The research not only demonstrates a successful collaboration between academia and industry; it is also important evidence for government which, under the 2008 Climate Change Act, has committed the UK to reducing its emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050.”

Read the full Case Study


Key Facts and Figures

Manufacturing contributes £6.7 trillion to the global economy, with the UK currently the world's ninth largest industrial nation. Manufacturing makes up 10 per cent of GVA and 45 per cent of UK exports, and directly employs 2.7 million people. The UK enjoys world leadership in established manufacturing industries such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals, electronics design and photonic technologies.

EPSRC plays a pivotal role in supporting these industries; enabling cutting-edge research and development of highly-skilled people needed to support UK manufacturing innovation and underpin continued and sustainable growth. The underpinning science and technology made possible by EPSRC investment covers the entire manufacturing spectrum, including simulation, design, production, fabrication, systems and services leading to successful processes and products.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Manufacturing the future page.

References: The Manufacturer

Software helps car manufacturers produce higher quality products

EPSRC-funded research at the University of Leeds has resulted in a software product that helps car manufacturers improve the quality of their products.

  • Researchers used 3D modelling to replicate the effects of manufacturing variation – developing a product that has saved car makers £25 million
  • Spin-out company Icona Solutions formed to maximise potential of research, creating Aesthetica software
  • Aesthetica is now licenced to over 20 companies in 10 countries

Researchers from the University of Leeds have developed 3D modelling techniques and virtual visualisation software to help car-makers address potential imperfections, such as gaps between panels and misalignments that arise during vehicle assembly, even when all part dimensions are manufactured to within their tolerance range.

In 2003 the researchers formed Icona Solutions to develop and exploit this intellectual property. This led to the creation of Aesthetica software, a product that enables manufacturers to simulate tolerance conditions, which enables manufacturers to master the exact assembly of their product, before going into production – reducing assembly time and reject rates.

The software has contributed to improvements in the design and manufacture of around 70 different vehicle lines, reaching over 40 million consumers, and saving car makers approximately £25 million in efficiency and cost savings (including reduced scrap and rectification costs).

Read the full Case Study

Radical sound-absorbing technology reuses 95% of production waste

EPSRC-funded research has enabled manufacturing company Armacell to reuse up to 95% of its production waste.

  • Researchers’ sound absorbing technology licensed to Armacell has been exploited globally with an average market value of £10 million
  • Research led to the development of ArmaSound, a high-performance sound absorbing product
  • Over 500 tonnes of plastic waste is reused each year, preventing it from being sent to landfill

Research funded by EPSRC and the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) carried out by Kirill Horoshenkov at the University of Bradford – now a professor at the University of Sheffield – has enabled Armacell, a world leader in insulation foams for a wide range of industries, to reuse the majority of its production waste.

Armacell produces high-performance acoustic material technology products that offer up to 50 per cent better sound absorption than competitors’ products of a similar size. The product, Armasound, is used across several industries including petrochemical (industrial piping), domestic appliances (boilers) and air handling (ventilation ducts) and in heavy automotive (tractors and excavators). By reusing industrial polymeric waste, Amarcell is able to prevent more than 500 tonnes of spent plastic from going into landfill every year.

The underpinning research behind ArmaSound has relied on advanced analytical, computational and experimental methods to examine and optimise the acoustic and mechanical properties of porous elastomeric coatings. This research has led to new sound absorbing materials that could be produced from waste industrial plastics and rubbers. Researchers were able to enhance the acoustic absorption and vibration damping performance of these products while maintaining quality and enabling the scale-up for manufacturing worldwide.

Read the full Case Study


Key Facts and Figures

The global construction market is forecast to grow over 70 per cent by 2025 with the UK exporting over £6 billion of construction products and materials and almost £3 billion of construction services. The UK has world-class expertise in architecture, design and engineering, and British companies are leading the way in sustainable construction solutions.

EPSRC research into advanced, sustainable materials and innovative construction design plays a key role in the reputation of the UK’s construction sector on the world stage. Research investments into the use of ICT in construction, building performance and public health are important aspects of the EPSRC portfolio that will help ensure the continued success of the UK as world-leader in innovative construction.  

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Engineering theme page.

Project aims to improve housing for refugees across the globe

EPSRC-supported researchers are leading an international project to improve the living conditions of millions of refugees by designing better shelters.

  • Interdisciplinary project is creating low-cost housing that is easy to construct in refugee camps
  • New shelters are being designed to moderate extreme temperatures
  • Shelters will also improve privacy and security, allowing residents to live in dignity

The temperatures endured by refugees living in camps in Jordan and many other countries can range from extreme heat to freezing cold.

This can lead to health issues for many refugees, while their wellbeing is also adversely affected by the fact that current shelters fail to meet basic privacy and security needs.

As part of the Healthy Housing For The Displaced project, researchers at the University of Bath are working alongside colleagues from the Princess Sumaya University for Technology and German Jordanian University in Jordan, and Turkey’s Mersin University to develop housing that will address these challenges.

Researchers interviewed Syrian refugees living in Jordanian camps to identify their needs, which range from the provision of proper toilet and kitchen facilities to ensuring there is proper insulation to protect against both heat and cold.

Following this feedback, they are using new combinations of conventional and non-conventional materials including recycled plastic, bamboo, mud and straw to design shelters that can provide warmth in winter and cool conditions during the summer.

Twenty possible designs are being constructed which will be thermally tested at the university’s Building Research Park in Swindon. The most successful designs will then be transported to Jordan to be tested in local conditions.

The project has been funded through EPSRC’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) allocation. The UK research councils are key delivery partners in the £1.5 billion GCRF initiative, which forms part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment.

Read the full Case Study

Sensor tech raises safety standards, cuts costs and delays

Fibre optic sensing methods developed by researchers at the EPSRC-supported Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) are being used on a major London Underground line extension project, improving safety levels and reducing costs.

  • Distributed fibre optic sensing technology used to test the integrity of construction piles and walls both during and after construction
  • Cementation Skanska’s adoption of the system wins industry award, with safety benefits cited
  • Approach can improve quality, reduce overall costs and benefit structures throughout their lifespan

The system, which is being used by specialist piling and ground engineering subcontractor, Cementation Skanska, to extend the London Underground’s Northern Line from Kennington to Battersea Power Station, evolved from a project that began at CSIC in 2014.

Low-cost fibre optic cables are installed in diaphragm walls or piles to record temperature and/or strain distribution, and help to assess the integrity of structures.

The fibre itself acts as the sensor, allowing measurements to be taken at close spatial and time intervals along the length of the pile or wall. With this system the structure is monitored remotely, improving safety by removing the need for workers to manually check sensors.

In addition to the safety benefits it offers, the approach reduces costs by improving productivity on site, reducing material quantities and allowing for the early identification of anomalies so they can be effectively managed.

In some cases, the longevity of the sensors also means they can be used to monitor the structures over their entire lifetime, through to decommissioning. The system has multiple applications across a variety of different structures, such as bridges, concrete elements and retaining walls, and has already been applied in other projects.

As part of the collaboration between CSIC and Cementation Skanska, training was provided and software developed which has allowed the company to reach commercial readiness with a new specialist service, CemOptics, that is now being employed at other sites across its portfolio.

Cementation Skanska’s use of the technology led to the company winning the Editor’s Award at the 2016 Ground Engineering Awards, with the judges particularly impressed by the safety benefits delivered through the use of CemOptics.

Read the full Case Study

Information and Communications

Key Facts and Figures

The UK is one of the world’s largest information communications technology (ICT) markets with an industry worth £58 billion annually. The UK’s mobile market alone is the largest in Europe with a value of £14 billion annually and the UK cloud computing market is predicted to be around £6.1 billion.

EPSRC research and training in ICT contributes significantly to this sector, providing technologies vital to the prosperity of the UK, as well as the safety and wellbeing of its people. Covering a wide range of areas from photonics, to computer science, to electronics and communications technologies, EPSRC research in this area proposes new ways to transmit, present, manage, analyse, process, generate or understand information.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the ICT theme page.

The wizard of wireless

Every time you make or receive a mobile phone call, or send a picture from your phone, you have Professor Joe McGeehan to thank for developing the technology that made it possible.

  • Professor McGeehan’s first EPSRC grant, for £9,600, enabled many of the achievements that followed – from 3G networks to wireless LAN
  • Nokia’s first mass-market mobile phone was based on a design by Professor McGeehan
  • EPSRC-supported research led to the formation of a world-leading communications research facility, employing around 150 researchers

But Professor McGeehan’s genius doesn’t end with mobile phone calls. His research also led to the development of wireless routers, and many more devices besides. In the global history of technology, he is that important.

In the mid-1970s, fundamental research by Joe McGeehan, today Emeritus Professor of Communications Engineering at the University of Bristol, laid the foundations for modern mobile telephony. His work directly led to the ability to send pictures and video over mobile networks, as well as the development of 3G networks, wireless LANs, smart antennas, high efficiency ultralinear RF power amplifiers and software-defined radio (SDR).

Among his achievements, his designs formed the basis of Nokia’s first mass-market mobile phone, the Mobira MC25. A later collaboration with Lucent Bell Telephone Research Laboratories, HP Labs and Bradford University led to the development of the world 3G cellular standard.

In 1987, Professor McGeehan (pictured) was instrumental in forming the University of Bristol’s Centre for Communications Research, which, supported by key investments from EPSRC, has become one of the world’s leading communications research facilities. With a staff complement of around 150 researchers at its peak, the centre’s key research areas include wireless communications; electromagnetics; signal processing; networks and protocols; and photonics and quantum technologies.

The Bristol group’s recent achievements and collaborations include telemetry systems for Formula 1 teams; the development of record-breaking technology with the potential to significantly boost available data rates in future 5G mobile networks; and the formation of a number of successful spin-out companies.

The team have also made pivotal advances in multidisciplinary research related to a new generation of connected technologies linked to the Internet of Things, including home networks, smart grids, intelligent transport systems, healthcare sensing and wearable technologies.

Professor McGeehan says: “My first grant from the Science Research Council (SERC, EPSRC’s forerunner) laid the foundations for so much that followed – from accurate coverage prediction and data transmission to the design and engineering underpinning the first mobile phone. I’d like to think that’s £9,600 well spent.”

Read the full Case Study

Optoelectronics Research Centre – a world leader in photonics for over 40 years

The EPSRC-supported Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton is acknowledged as a world leader in photonics, optical telecommunication, optical materials and high-power lasers, and is testament to the value of long-term investment in blue-skies and application-driven research. In 2017 the University was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in recognition of the many decades of inspired innovation in photonics and optical technology.

The ORC entrepreneurial researchers have founded 11 companies, generating revenue in excess of £200M and creating over 600 jobs. EPSRC has supported the Centre through a series of long-term investments dating back four decades, totalling over £20 million; this has been complemented by major investments from industrial partners such as Microsoft, Pirelli, Rockley Photonics and SPI Lasers.

Ideas generated at the ORC, the largest photonics group in the UK, have been fundamental to powering the global internet. More than one billion internet users now exchange over 2,000 petabytes of data every month. Most of this travels through optical amplifiers invented at the ORC.

With a remit spanning global photonics, the ORC has developed a suite of technologies at the cutting edge of global manufacturing, healthcare and commerce. Its fibre lasers are in use world-wide, cutting inch-thick steel, welding cars in state-of-the art factories, performing delicate eye surgery, and even marking the date on the fruit we buy in the supermarket.

The centre, which has licensed over 30 key patents and files 10 patents a year, also has a commitment to developing the photonics leaders of tomorrow. Over 800 of its alumni are in key positions in academia and industry all over the world. A dual-site research partner in NTU, Singapore jointly managed by the ORC has a US$150 million research portfolio

In 2013, the University of Southampton launched the Zepler Institute, the UK’s largest photonics and electronics institute. It has over 350 staff and PhD students and is led by Professor Sir David Payne, the ORC’s founder and director.

Professor Sir David Payne, the ORC’s founder and director, says: “Thanks to long-term backing from EPSRC, the University of Southampton has been a world leader in photonics research for 40 years. EPSRC investment in basic research is now bringing widespread commercial success and keeping the UK at the forefront of innovation.”

Read the full Case Study

Defence / Security

Key Facts and Figures

The UK defence industry has a unique value to the country, both vital to national security and a major contributor to UK economic prosperity, with defence companies recording overall turnover of more than £23 billion in 2016. With our lives being ever more dependent on online technology, cybersecurity has become an increasingly important global industry with the UK market predicted to be worth over £3.4 billion in 2017.

EPSRC works closely with key partners in this sector to ensure that leading-edge research and innovation plays its part in keeping the nation secure. Leading on the cybersecurity strand of the UK Research and Innovation Global Uncertainties programme, EPSRC’s research addresses the challenges posed by security risks, especially criminal interventions.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Global Uncertainties theme page.

Drone tracking system enables early detection of unmanned aircraft

  • ‘Drone tracking’ system enables early detection of unmanned aerial vehicles
  • Grand Prize winner at major European satellite navigation competition
  • The system could be used for airfield surveillance and to monitor drone use at public events or for e-commerce

A team of EPSRC-supported researchers from the University Defence Research Collaboration in Signal Processing at the University of Strathclyde have developed an award-winning ‘silent lookout’ Passive Bistatic Radar (PBR) system that uses low-cost sensors and satellite navigation technology for the early detection and tracking of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

The system can monitor sensitive areas such as restricted air spaces around airfields or prisons and works by exploiting sources of electromagnetic energy to accomplish radar tasks such as target detection, parameter estimation and recognition.

The team won the UK and Overall awards at the 2016 European Satellite Navigation Competition, the world’s leading innovation platform for forward-thinking applications in its field.

In addition to its potential deployment at major public events, the system could also be used to support drone deliveries for e-commerce.

The team’s cutting-edge civilian UAV tracking system addresses growing concerns over public safety, security and privacy. With more and more civilian and commercial UAVs, such as quadcopter drones, taking to the skies, authorities are concerned they pose a significant risk to safety and security.

While collision and crash avoidance is of paramount concern, the ‘silent lookout’ system could also play an important role at public events, such as football matches or concert venues, with the system deployed as a perimeter around the stadium, allowing the sensors to create a ‘detection arc’ at a distance that would allow authorities enough time to take appropriate action.

Dr Carmine Clemente, who led the research, Domenico Gaglione and Christos Ilioudis from the Sensor Signal Processing and Security Labs at the Centre for Signal and Image processing, developed the idea with support from the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications. The team intend to form a spin-out company to commercialise the idea.

Along with their €10,000 prize, they are set to receive an extensive package including cash, marketing support and consulting services, technical support and more to accelerate their idea further towards commercialisation.

Dr Clemente acknowledges the value of innovation platforms such as the European Satellite Navigation Competition. He says: “It is incredible to have won first place, especially seeing the calibre of entries. The competition was an exciting opportunity for us to accelerate our idea to a market-ready application.”

Read the full Case Study

Research into blast behaviour that could save British troops

  • Research reveals how the blast produced by a landmine or IED would impact armoured vehicles
  • Addresses a vital gap in our knowledge of how buried IEDs interact with their environment
  • Will help to inform future designs of armoured vehicles
  • Aids risk assessment and route planning for operations in combat zones

Research by EPSRC-supported scientists at the University of Sheffield has shed unprecedented light on the behaviour of blasts produced by landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and could aid the development of enhanced protection for UK soldiers on military, peace-keeping and humanitarian missions.

By focusing on explosives hidden in clay soils, the project addressed a vital gap in knowledge about how buried explosives interact with their surrounding environment. This is a key factor in determining the pattern and extent of the pressure produced by an explosion.

The project is part of a wider ongoing initiative – the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory's (Dstl’s) programme to understand the effects of IEDs and land mines on armoured vehicles.

As well as helping to inform future designs of armoured vehicles, the data produced by the project will aid risk assessment and route planning for operations in current and future combat zones.

Using the University of Sheffield’s unique Explosives Arena, the team, led by Dr Sam Clarke, carried out around 250 test explosions using different soil samples and made 17 different pressure measurements during each test. The results were backed up and verified by numerical modelling developed and applied as part of an EPSRC CASE (Collaborative Award in Science and Engineering) Studentship.

The research has revealed how the blast produced by a landmine or IED would interact, for instance, with anti-mine body armour or an armoured plate fixed underneath a troop transport vehicle.

Hundreds of UK service personnel have been killed or injured by IEDs in recent years, while landmines in former warzones worldwide continue to cause thousands of deaths every year. In the face of dangers like these, there is a constant drive to keep improving the capabilities of vehicle armour, personal armour and protective footwear, and this can be aided by a clearer understanding about how explosions actually behave.

Dr Sam Clarke says: “Detonations of explosives in shallow soils are extremely complex events that involve the interaction of the shock waves with the surrounding soil, air and water.

“The understanding we’ve generated about how clay soils affect the process is a key piece in the jigsaw, as it complements the extensive knowledge that’s already been built up about explosions in sandy and gravelly soils, which are much less cohesive than clay soils.”

Read the full Case Study

Health and Social Work

Key Facts and Figures

Life sciences are a major component of the current economic base of the UK with the sector generating £64 billion of turnover and employing more than 233,000 scientists and staff. The enormous gains in health outcomes and life expectancy achieved over the last 30 years can continue but it is likely that this will depend on both existing innovation platforms for drug and device discovery, and also a host of new scientific platforms for improving health.

EPSRC recognises the value and importance of partnership and multidisciplinary research to address the future challenges of this sector and works closely with other funders to ensure the UK stays at the forefront of healthcare innovation. EPSRC’s healthcare technologies programme aims to accelerate the translation of research to healthcare applications across four challenges: Developing future therapies; Frontiers of physical intervention; Optimising treatment; and Transforming community health and care.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Healthcare Technologies theme page.

Touchscreen tech helps people with dementia feel like their old selves

In 2005, some years before the development of the tablet computer, an EPSRC-supported team from the universities of Dundee and St Andrews, led by Dr Norman Alm, developed a simple touchscreen aid to help people with dementia recall their memories.

  • Touchscreen technology helps people with dementia recall their memories
  • A spin-out company, Circa Connect, formed to bring research to market
  • People with dementia using the touchscreen system felt more like their old selves

The aid was simple to use and stimulated more enjoyable, rewarding conversation between people with dementia and those who care for them. During development, the CIRCA (Computer Interactive Reminiscence and Conversation Aid) system was tested with 40 people with dementia in day care, nursing home and family situations, with many carers reporting that the person seemed like their old selves again.

CIRCA exploits the fact that, while people with dementia find it hard to recall recent events, longer-term memory is less affected by their condition.

The team secured further EPSRC funding from the EPSRC-led UK Research and Innovation Digital Economy Programme to develop an interactive multimedia activity system that people with dementia could enjoy using on their own.

The research led to the formation of Circa Connect Ltd, a spin out company, which brought together expertise in the fields of design, psychology and computer science, to commercialise the work.

The BBC subsequently launched an online system, called RemArc, based on the CIRCA research, which uses as its content the extensive BBC archive of film clips, photos, music and the spoken word.

CIRCA team member Dr Arlene Astell, who was at University of St Andrews School of Psychology during the project, says: “The declining ability of people with dementia to hold conversations causes a lot of stress and frustration. Helping them access their memories makes living with dementia more bearable and less distressing for the person and their carers.”

Read the full Case Study

New scan to predict stroke risk

Researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a new type of MRI scan to predict the risk of having a stroke.

  • Strokes are the third biggest killer in the UK and a leading cause of disability
  • Almost 25,000 strokes in the UK are caused by carotid arteries
  • Researchers developed a non-invasive technique which can detect stroke-causing plaque (fatty deposits) in carotid arteries
  • The technique can differentiate between risky plaques containing large amounts of cholesterol and more stable ones

The new MRI technique, developed through research co-funded by EPSRC, can differentiate between risky plaques containing large amounts of cholesterol and more stable ones.

The technique can help medical staff to identify those patients requiring early treatment while enabling others to be spared surgery altogether.

The research team demonstrated the effectiveness of the technology by scanning the carotid plaques (fatty deposits) of 26 patients scheduled for surgery. After the plaques were surgically removed, the team found that actual cholesterol content in each plaque was consistent with that detected in the scans. The researchers later confirmed and extended their findings in another study on 50 people.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, says: “When someone suffers a mini-stroke, they often go on to suffer a more serious, or even deadly, stroke in the hours, days or weeks that follow. This exciting research opens up the possibility that in the future we may be able to more accurately identify people with carotid plaques that are likely to rupture and cause a stroke.”

Further research is now necessary before this advance can come into routine clinical practice. However, if successful the technique has the promise to save lives.

The project was conducted by the researchers in collaboration with surgeons at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and was funded by EPSRC, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the British Heart Foundation, National Institute for Health Research Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, Wellcome Trust, Stroke Association and the Dunhill Medical Trust.

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Arts, Entertainment and Recreation

Key Facts and Figures

The creative industries sector, just one element of the arts, entertainment and recreation market, is forecast for the UK to be £128.4 billion by 2025. With an increasing appetite from the public for culture and a need to find recreation time in ever busier lives, this sector is ‘one of the best investments we can make as a nation.’

EPSRC is probably least known for its research in this sector but actually has a significant portfolio that contributes to the gaming and film industries, sports technology innovations and heritage restoration among other areas. With underpinning research in human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, graphics and visualisation, advanced materials and 3D printing EPSRC’s research provides the high-tech and innovative advances that ensure a thriving creative industries and culture in the UK.

For further information on EPSRC’s investments in this area please visit the Digital Economy theme page.

Movie music magic

An EPSRC-supported doctoral student has developed pioneering technology to enhance mood music in film. The research is focused on enriching the musical experience of film audiences and might also help the hard of hearing.

  • Mood Glove, a haptic wearable prototype, harnesses the wearer’s sense of touch to provide them with information; this adds another layer of expression to the film experience
  • This system suggests simple emotions to intensify moods in film music that tie in with action
  • Mood Glove was showcased at high profile international events and featured in national UK press

For the hearing impaired, watching a movie like the 1993 classic The Piano can be very frustrating. Subtitles make it easy enough to follow the dialogue and plot, but the inability to experience the music – often so important to a film – means much of the emotional content is inevitably lost. Antonella Mazzoni, a student at the EPSRC/AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Media and Arts Technology, believes that her approach could have positive effects on the hard of hearing, too.

Her research looked at how music is used in movies to enhance both mood and emotions, and how enriching the musical experience of audiences through haptic sensations might also have implications for hearing impaired people, providing them with a new, enhanced emotional experience while watching a film.

Antonella’s aim was to find a solution that was not only affordable but also allowed users a degree of freedom of movement and avoided the need to confine themselves to a particular chair. The result was a ground-breaking piece of wearable digital technology – a glove inducing simple emotions, such as calmness, happiness, sadness and alarm – that tie in with the action unfolding on the screen.

The glove, named Mood Glove, utilises so-called ‘haptic’ feedback. This means the sense of touch is harnessed to provide information to the wearer.

Antonella argues that the design of haptic sensations for media enhancement should be an artistic process, rather than an effect linked to automatically extracted features. She envisions haptic compositions to be created for a movie just as a composer scores the music for it. In her last study Antonella designed haptic sensations and used Mood Glove to target the build-up of tension on screen. As well as providing a much more immersive experience for anyone watching a movie, it can add a layer of experience previously inaccessible to people with hearing impairments.

Antonella Mazzoni has showcased Mood Glove at the 2015 International Culture Makers’ Joint Design Exhibition ‘Utopia of Culture Makers’ in Milan; the 2015 London Wearable Tech Show; Digital Shoreditch 2015; the Wearable Technology Festival at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester 2016; the 2016 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems; and Inter/Sections 2016. Her work was subsequently covered in the Daily Mail and exhibited at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford as part of the ‘Supersenses’ exhibition in 2017.

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'Harp monitor' provides bridge engineers with structural fatigue data

One of the UK’s most famous bridges, Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, has been turned into a musical instrument, capable of playing music composed from its own structural data.

  • Sensors provide unique insight into how bridge moves – changes in movement can indicate possible ageing or fatigue
  • Musicians and sound artists created an installation to musically represent this structural data
  • Software sends data to bridge management personnel in real time, anywhere in the world

A specially-made double-strung harp will give a unique insight into how the Clifton Suspension Bridge moves and will help to demonstrate the impact of vehicles, pedestrians and the weather.

The data is being used by engineers at the university to improve structural models of the bridge and to design a system to classify vehicle traffic.

The EPSRC-supported project, developed by the Jean Golding Institute at the University of Bristol, sees the harp being played with two robotic arms, each strumming the strings on different sides to represent data collected on the north and south sides of the bridge.

Six streams of data were collected from sensors installed on the bridge for a month, allowing engineering academics to understand how it moves, with any changes in the movement profile indicating possible ageing or fatigue.

Software allows the data to be displayed to structural engineers or bridge management personnel in real time, anywhere in the world.

Bristol-based musicians and sound artists, Yas Clarke and Lorenzo Prati, then created an installation to musically represent this structural data.

The harp was designed and built by Bristol-based luthier and guitar maker, Sean Clark. It has 82 strings and is tuned in relation to the bridge’s natural frequency of 12.9Hz.

While six sensors were needed to monitor the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the technology can be scaled-up to measure vibrations and displacements on far larger bridges.

The dashboard has since been used to monitor the Clifton Suspension Bridge for a second time and the learning gathered from this project is already being used by PhD students at the University of Bristol to design a structural health monitoring system to go on a new fibreglass bridge being built in North Bristol.

The data-gathering and dashboard project was funded by the university’s EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account.

The harp project was developed by the Jean Golding Institute at the University of Bristol, which supports interdisciplinary research in data science.

Sam Gunner, an Engineering Mathematics PhD student who has led the project, says: “To see our research represented in this way is really remarkable. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a much-loved sight and now people can both see and hear it in a new light.

“Aside from the harp offering a visual and audio experience, it embodies important research which allows us to better understand how the bridge moves and the impact of vehicles, pedestrians and the weather.”

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Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing

Key Facts and Figures

Agri-tech is a well-established and important UK sector contributing an estimated £96 billion to UK GVA. It is also a sector that is enjoying a technology revolution with breakthroughs in nutrition, genetics, informatics, satellite imaging, remote sensing, meteorology, precision farming and low impact agriculture.

EPSRC’s portfolio in this area stretches across its Engineering, Energy and Physical Sciences programmes, investing in the fundamental and applied research and training that drives advances in technology.

Turning industrial waste into livestock fodder

Around 80 billion litres of the fuel bioethanol are produced annually from fermented cereals. The yeast used in the process is discarded. Now, an academic/industry partnership led by Dr Emily Burton, from Nottingham Trent University, has led to a process that can retrieve proteins from what would otherwise have been discarded as cereal ‘waste’ which can then be used in chicken feed and commercial fish feed. 

  • New process extracts valuable proteins from discarded yeast used in bioethanol production and repurposes it for use in poultry and fish feed
  • Patented process already adopted by bioethanol industry in the US
  • Could lead to global production of three million tonnes of protein derived from ‘waste’ matter
  • EPSRC Industrial CASE partnership funded the PhD student who made the breakthrough

The underpinning research was supported by EPSRC and AB Agri, the agricultural division of Associated British Foods, resulting in a breakthrough by Dawn Scholey, a PhD student at Nottingham.

Thanks to Dawn’s work, the team came up with a way to separate the protein from the waste yeast and showed that it contained nutrients that are easily digestible by chickens. This patented process could provide a cost-competitive alternative to soya-based protein and other feeds given to chickens bred for meat production. 

The process has already been taken up by industry in the US, which is using it to produce high quality protein for poultry feed alongside bioethanol production.

If adopted worldwide, the process could lead to global production of three million tonnes of high-grade protein chicken from discarded bioethanol bi-products.

The research project was borne out of the vision of biofuels pioneer Dr Pete Williams of AB Agri, which, with EPSRC, jointly funded Dawn Scholey via an Industrial CASE studentship awarded to Emily Burton.

Dr Burton says: “I’ve always had a close relationship with industry. This allows me and my team to really understand the problems and challenges companies face, so we try to direct research projects to focus on problem-solving.

“The EPSRC CASE studentship allowed us to build a small, simple poultry research facility. It got us going, and now we have a huge programme that was built out of that.”

A Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Plymouth University subsequently enabled Dr Williams to demonstrate that the protein could be fed to fish such as farmed salmon.

Pete Williams acknowledges the importance of academic/industry partnerships. He says: “We couldn’t have got this development started without the EPSRC CASE studentship, which allowed us to establish the proof of concept.”

The project led to Dr Williams’ Knowledge Transfer Partnership funding and a grant from the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK).

In parallel with the EPSRC funding, the Nottingham researchers were granted a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Industrial CASE studentship, which enabled PhD student, Harriet Lea, to work with animal health company Alltech UK3 to establish the mode of action of a prebiotic chicken food supplement.

The combined support of BBSRC and EPSRC not only helped Emily Burton to establish a new poultry research unit with researchers at Nottingham Trent University, it provided a springboard for recruitment and training of researchers to meet a critical poultry industry skills need. Dr Dawn Scholey is now a full-time member of the team.

The research has been so successful that the liquid protein extracted during the process essentially becomes the most valuable component, more so than the bioethanol. Pete Williams says: “Our story is similar to that of the soya bean, which was originally processed to produce oil but is now grown for the meal. The key is that our bioprocessed meal will be produced from a non-GM English wheat crop and will replace imported soya bean meal.”

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Supercomputer aids Bengali people and farmland

Researchers have used ARCHER, a state-of-the-art supercomputer, to create a model of the river channels in the Bengal delta – the largest river delta in the world – which will allow them to predict changes in tidal water level and salinity in the Bangladesh delta region, and to advise on irrigation and crop choice.

  • River delta is estimated to support livelihoods of 300 million people
  • ARCHER supercomputer was used to identify safe areas of drinking water and determine what crops to grow
  • The supercomputer helps policymakers make decisions on managing the environment, such as where to take irrigation water and what crops to grow

Future scenarios forecast by the model show the tidal range increasing by up to half a metre in places, which could see a large area of the delta flooded during high tide; affecting farmland, as well as the Sundarbans mangrove forests – a UNESCO world heritage site.

The model is the first ever to link the open ocean with the limit of tidal interaction in Bangladesh, and is being used to make decisions about how to manage the physical environment, such as where to take irrigation water from and what crops to grow, and thus preserve farmland and identify safe areas of drinking water.

The research is led by Dr Lucy Bricheno, from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). She says: “This region is home to large numbers of people whose wellbeing is critically dependant on the land, and so are vulnerable to changes in the physical environment. By providing high quality evidence and forecasts, the outputs of the model could really help policymakers to make more informed decisions about how to best manage that environment.” 

The project harnessed huge amounts of information, including data drawn from other models such as river discharge, ocean tides, water temperature and salinity. Such was the complexity and volume of this source material that only a supercomputer such as ARCHER could be used to make sense of it within realistic timeframes.

ARCHER, which can make one million billion calculations a second, is the UK’s primary academic research supercomputer, enabling UK researchers from industry and academia to run simulations and calculations involving massive data sets, such as those used to simulate the airflow around cars and aircraft, and in the design of new materials.

Based around a Cray XC30 supercomputer, the ARCHER service is provided by its partners: EPSRC, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Edinburgh Parallel Computer Centre (EPCC), Cray Inc and The University of Edinburgh. EPSRC has invested over £40 million in the ARCHER system.

Dr Bricheno’s use of ARCHER resulted in a series of high-resolution 3D maps of the Bangladesh delta, its rivers, and the Indian Ocean. The maps enabled the simulation of various properties under a range of possible future climates, including projections on agricultural crops, drinking water salinity, poverty and human wellbeing.

The model also showed that in general the west of the delta and the Sundarbans mangrove forest got saltier, particularly during the dry season, which has important implications for the health of the forest and any crops planted there. The western part of the delta is also home to some of the poorest farmers in Bangladesh and is the habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Dr Bricheno says: “What is interesting about the tidal change evident in the model is that it has a complex spatial pattern – not just rising everywhere. This is important because it wouldn’t be captured in a coarse ocean model – we need to simulate the whole delta.”

The research is both timely and necessary. There is a lack of observed data regarding water levels and river salinity in the region, making computer simulations all the more valuable. In total, the delta is estimated to support the livelihoods of around 300 million people, and is one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, with around 400 people per square kilometre.

The research also has benefits beyond the Ganges delta, helping to model other areas of the world that are heavily affected by changing water conditions.

Dr Judith Wolf, who leads the NOC’s contribution to this project, says: “This international collaborative research is pushing oceanography into new areas, working further inland than ever (to reach the limit of tidal penetration), and leading us to collaborations with human geographers and social scientists.”

The Finite Volume Coastal Ocean Model employed in this study has been used across the UK and Bangladesh, contributing further to understanding these changes, which will enable more accurate predictions of water changes in future. External partners have been trained to use the technology, further adding to its worldwide effectiveness.

Dr Bricheno’s research is part of the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) Deltas programme, funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and NERC.

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Energy supply

Key Facts and Figures

The UK’s whole energy system faces massive changes to deliver against all aspects of the ‘trilemma’ — cost, security and decarbonisation. Under a smart, flexible system, external estimates suggest that overall system costs could be reduced in the order of tens of billions (£) in the period to 2050.

EPSRC has a substantial energy portfolio that aims to position the UK to meet its energy and environmental targets and policy goals through world-class research and training. EPSRC leads the cross-research council energy programme, investing in research and training to secure a low-carbon future, through the creation of reliable, economically viable energy systems while protecting the natural environment, resources and quality of life. 

Career profile: Dr Conaill Soraghan

Dr Conaill Soraghan, who leads the Operations & Maintenance Data Systems team at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, describes his career trajectory.

  • ‘Graduate’ of UK research and innovation ecosystem, and former EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training student
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training provides world-class training, facilities and network of academic experts
  • Progressed to team leadership at innovation-focused Catapult Centre 
  • Has a particular interest in the digital transformation and the application of information systems and data science techniques to enhance wind farm operation and maintenance 

Following an undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of St Andrews and a Masters in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, I studied for a PhD at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Wind Energy Systems at the University of Strathclyde.

The first year of the course, a taught Masters in Renewable Energy Systems, was ideal for someone like me with a background outside engineering. It gave me a detailed introduction to all aspects of wind energy systems, from electricity generation and wind turbine technology to the politics and economics of renewable energy systems.

EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) have a strong focus on nurturing well-rounded and professional scientists and engineers. In addition to providing me with technical know-how and the confidence to apply it, the CDT enabled me to work collaboratively in world-class research facilities and develop a network of experts in the field. It gave me the confidence to engage with a wide range of stakeholders from the renewable sector, as well as develop transferable skills which have helped me become a key facilitator and influencer in priority projects.

As part of my research into aerodynamics and control of innovative wind turbines, I developed software to predict the performance of novel wind energy systems. Keen to further my work in this field, after completing my PhD I successfully applied for the post of Renewable Technology Engineer at the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, which is funded by Innovate UK, the government’s business investment arm.

The ORE Catapult is an innovation centre – we are tasked with creating and appraising new ideas and methods with a focus on real-world commercial impact. I now lead the ORE Catapult’s Operations and Maintenance Data Systems team and am technical lead for the world’s first offshore wind benchmarking platform, SPARTA.

SPARTA focuses on the application of information systems and data science techniques and has created a database and web system for collecting and benchmarking performance of operational offshore wind farms.

Over 75 per cent of the installed capacity of offshore wind farms in UK waters is already providing data into SPARTA, which will improve wind turbine operational performance by increasing safety, reliability and availability, thereby cutting the cost of electricity generated from offshore wind.

I’m also involved in the design and delivery of an Operations and Maintenance (O&M) business intelligence tool for the tidal sector, and publishing O&M best practice case studies based on interviews with the Catapult’s industry partners.

After three years in the engineering directorate at the ORE Catapult I was promoted to Team Leader for O&M Data Systems. Our team goal is to support the renewables industry, realise a successful digital transformation and extract the full potential from digital technology, data and information. Our work involves the application of cutting-edge digital approaches including machine learning, process mining and modern architectures to operational data from the offshore renewables industry.

In addition to managing and developing a team of data specialists and engineers, I have a multifaceted role. This includes project creation; technical engineering support; due diligence of technology innovation concepts; and business development.

I am proud to be part of a connected UK research and innovation ecosystem, which has provided me with a career path leading from a maths degree and Masters through to an engineering PhD and a rewarding career as a leader in the dynamic renewables industry I am passionate about.

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Buildings as power stations

Every day the sun provides enough energy to power our planet for 27 years. So why not capture that energy with everyday buildings – using coatings that generate, store and release it?

This is the challenge being addressed by SPECIFIC, an EPSRC-supported Innovation and Knowledge Centre driven by a singular vision – that buildings could be their own power stations.

  • Unique centre is developing technology to enable buildings to function as their own power stations
  • Focus is on scaling-up manufacture of low carbon and carbon negative electricity and heat systems
  • Success stories include a spin-out company and off-grid office and classroom demonstrators that generate more energy than they consume
  • Inspired £7 million investment into solar energy generation and building technologies in five Indian villages

This unique approach to the capture and consumption of solar energy is part of an integrated programme to develop low carbon and carbon-negative electricity and heat systems.

Supported by an initial £20 million investment from EPSRC, Innovate UK and the Welsh Government, together with investment from Swansea University and industry, SPECIFIC brings together a wide range of academic and industry partners to share expertise in ‘functional coatings’, such as photovoltaic materials built into a building’s cladding; energy storage; technology scale-up; manufacture at scale; business development and commercial know-how.

The centre’s approach is multifaceted. Dedicated research teams are working on the next generation of solar technologies and their manufacture; a building-integration team is creating full-scale demonstrators to prove and test the technology; and a comprehensive training programme is helping to create the next generation of scientists and engineers, from basic level short courses to doctorates.

Led by Swansea University, with Strategic Partners Akzo Nobel, NSG Pilkington, Tata Steel and Cardiff University, and a wide range of business and academic partners, SPECIFIC is now in its second phase, which has seen it attract over £40 million of funding from its original investors and partner organisations.

SPECIFIC now has four key sites in Swansea Bay, which include brand new, state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, pilot production lines which can demonstrate and improve full-scale manufacturing processes, and full-scale building demonstration.

More than 100 people work on a range of projects that contribute either directly or indirectly to the buildings as power stations vision. They include university researchers, senior industrial scientists, product developers, business development specialists and an architect. This unique mix makes for a vibrant base from which ideas are shared, tested and developed into new products.

The concept of a building as a power station has already been proven to work, with the opening of an energy-positive classroom on the Swansea University Bay campus which provides teaching space and a laboratory for students, as well as a building-scale development facility for SPECIFIC and its industry partners.

The award-winning classroom can run off grid, with electricity generated by a steel roof with integrated solar cells supplied by SPECIFIC spin-out company BIPVco.

The building uses Tata Steel’s perforated steel cladding for generation of solar heat energy. It also features an electrically-heated floor coating developed by SPECIFIC researchers and is connected to two saltwater batteries, which are being used in the UK for the first time and are capable of storing enough energy to power the building for two days. Since launch, the classroom has generated more energy than it has consumed.

Following the success of the Active Classroom, Innovate UK supported the construction of the UK’s first energy positive Active Office, capable of generating more energy than it uses.

Built using cutting-edge off-site manufacturing techniques and incorporating innovative energy harvest, storage and release technologies, the building was opened in April 2018 and immediately occupied by around 40 members of staff. It can also share solar energy with the Active Classroom.

Such has been the success of the buildings as power stations concept, Swansea University is leading a £7 million consortium of 12 UK and Indian universities which have joined forces on Project SUNRISE, which is integrating solar energy and building technologies into buildings in five villages in India, allowing them to harness solar power to provide their own energy and run off grid. 

The project has been funded by the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which supports cutting-edge research that addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. The plan is that it will encourage local industries in India to manufacture similar affordable prefabricated buildings, adapted for their environment.

Professor Dave Worsley of Swansea University, head of research at the SPECIFIC project, and leader of the SUNRISE team, says: “The energy-positive classroom shows that this technology works. Our hope is that if we can show this works on five villages in India, then it could be rolled out to other buildings in India and around the world.

“In the longer term, our vision is for a new £1 billion industry with thousands of jobs and enhanced value in the construction supply chain – a market-driven approach that addresses one of society’s biggest challenges and provides secure, affordable, sustainable energy.”

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Heritage / Museum

Key Facts and Figures

The UK is renowned for its heritage with palaces, houses, castles, abbeys and cathedrals spanning centuries and unlocking the history of our nation and the people who have lived in it. Conserving that heritage is critical to ensuring future generations understand what has gone before and learn from the past.

EPSRC’s portfolio includes research and training that is instrumental to the analysis, restoration and preservation of materials, buildings and artefacts. 

Conserving waterlogged wooden artefacts

An EPSRC-supported research team have developed a safer, greener method for conserving waterlogged wooden artefacts, such as those recovered from Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose.

  • New natural polymer material protects against the primary causes of waterlogged wood degradation
  • Formation of harmful corrosive acid is prevented by ‘trapping’ ions from iron fastenings and bolts
  • System enhances structural integrity and protects against biological damage

The team, led by Professor Oren A Scherman, from the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the Mary Rose Trust, developed a natural polymer-based system that appears to protect against all three primary causes of degradation in waterlogged wood, the first time this has been possible in a single treatment.

Initial tests of the material, carried out on wooden artefacts recovered from Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose, have shown that it effectively protects waterlogged wood against the main causes of collapse, and is a safer, greener alternative to current methods. 

A number of factors can contribute to the degradation of wooden artefacts once they are removed from the sea. Warping or cracking as the wood dries out, damage from bacteria, and the build-up of acid formed by the corrosion of iron fastenings and bolts can all cause cellulose and hemi-cellulose – significant components of the wood cell wall – to break down.

The protective material created by the team uses two naturally-sourced polymers to build a molecular cage around the iron ions, preventing them from acting as a catalyst and generating acid in the timber. This not only traps iron ions, it helps to enhance structural stability. In addition, the material has antibacterial properties which protect against biological damage. Even if there is no iron in the wood, the treatment still works. The team are now conducting tests on larger wooden artefacts.

Dr Zarah Walsh, a postdoctoral researcher on the team, says: “The polymer gets stronger relative to the amount of iron that’s there – in that way it’s quite responsive to its environment.”

Dr Walsh performed the research while a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemistry’s Melville Laboratory of Polymer Synthesis, which is led by Professor Oren A Scherman, an EPSRC RISE Rising Star.

The research was funded by EPSRC, the European Research Council, the Walters-Kundert Charitable Trust, the Mary Rose Trust, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Forest Service and Forest Products Laboratory.

Image credit: Geoff Hunt, PPRSMA

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Saving historic buildings from erosion

Scientists and preservation experts joined forces to help save historic York Minster Cathedral from decay and erosion.

  • Advanced X-ray techniques determine condition of limestone and historic mortars
  • To fight decay, the team developed a single-layer water-resistant coating that also enables the stone to ‘breathe’
  • International collaboration supported by EPSRC, AHRC and US National Science Foundation
  • Findings could help conserve other historic limestone buildings around the world

An international research project co-funded by EPSRC has led to the development of a new way to protect limestone buildings and statues from the effects of atmospheric pollution.

The team was led by Dr (now Professor) Karen Wilson, from York University (now at RMIT University in Melbourne), and Professor Adam Lee from Cardiff University (now at RMIT University in Melbourne). They used advanced X-ray techniques to investigate the composition of the limestone and historic mortars used to build York Minster cathedral, an 800-year-old gothic masterpiece, and the ways in which these have decayed as a result of weathering and pollution over time.

Working with the Diamond Light Source synchotron, a facility run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) that enables scientists to study samples in incredible detail, the researchers gained an acute molecular understanding of the cathedral’s iconic magnesian limestone surface.

Armed with this knowledge, and with support from colleagues from the University of Iowa, the team were able to show how the limestone had been degraded through decades of exposure to acid rain, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants. This enabled them to advise conservation experts on how best to treat the stone to prevent further decay and on what materials to use in the restoration of the Minster’s East Front.

The team later developed a new treatment, utilising water-repellant surface coating, which protects limestone from erosion by acid rain and atmospheric pollutants, while allowing the stone to ‘breathe’.

The research, co-funded by EPSRC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the £8 million Science and Heritage Programme, was also supported by the US National Science Foundation. The project’s findings could now be used to help conserve other historic limestone buildings around the world.

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Infrastructure / Transport

Key Facts and Figures

Reliable transport together with a connected infrastructure not only ensures that we get to where we need to be on time but increasingly they impact on the environment and the way we live. From the materials and fuel we use to build and run our vehicles, through to the development of our cities and urban spaces, the engineering and physical sciences are contributing to this constantly changing landscape.

EPSRC’s research portfolio in this area recognises that future sustainability and resilience relies on a whole-system approach to transport, transport systems and supporting infrastructure. 

Fewer traffic jams, cutting costs

Research by the Transportation Research Group (TRG) at the University of Southampton has contributed to the development of sustainable road transport networks both in the UK and other leading cities worldwide.

  • Economic benefits valued by Transport for London at over £29 million per year
  • Research has informed new software design, now in place in 200 cities across the world
  • The new algorithms were first implemented in 2009 across London’s bus network
  • The system is now operational in over 200 cities worldwide

Supported by funding from EPSRC and other contributors, TRG has been able to test and develop novel traffic management solutions to help combat traffic jams on UK roads, cutting costs and benefitting society as a whole.

Further studies by TRG led to the design of new bus priority systems at traffic signals in London. These were implemented first in 2009 through London’s iBus system – a satellite-based Automatic Vehicle Location system installed on all buses across the network. TRG’s research has enabled priority to be given to 8,000 buses at 2,000 traffic signals controlled by the world-leading SCOOT Urban Traffic Control system in London.

Economic benefits from these new algorithms have been valued by Transport for London at £29 million per year from bus passenger delay savings alone. Other positive impacts include a reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions from buses, as well as ways to encourage people to change from private low-occupancy vehicles to more efficient high-occupancy public transport.

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Enhancing rail reliability, maintenance and capacity

  • Award-winning technology uses safety concepts derived from the aerospace and nuclear industries
  • New track layout, combined with ‘redundant actuation’, improves reliability and reduces maintenance costs while enhancing network capacity
  • The system is being developed to be compatible with London Underground and Network Rail systems

EPSRC-supported researchers at Loughborough University have developed a new fault-tolerant points mechanism that could revolutionise the global rail industry.

Developed by the university’s Control Systems Group and supported by the UK Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), the team’s ingenious Repoint system uses safety concepts derived from the aerospace and nuclear industries in a robust and reliable locking mechanism that overrides track switch failures.

In the event of a single failure, the system enables rail traffic to continue to pass along the track while remedial maintenance is scheduled. Immediate disruption to services is avoided. This ultimately improves safety and maintenance costs while enhancing network capacity.

The technology was conceived in fundamental research funded by EPSRC/RSSB and has since progressed through key commercial milestones with support from the university’s EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account, the Higher Education Innovation Fund and RSSB.

Repoint’s innovative solution is globally significant. The UK alone has over 20,000 switch and crossing units and, despite representing only five per cent of network mileage, they account for over 15 per cent of the track maintenance budget. The Loughborough team’s longer-term aim is to work with partners around the world to develop and manufacture Repoint technology appropriate to local needs and regulation.

Project leader, Loughborough University’s Professor Roger Dixon, says: “Repoint is a robust alternative to conventional switches that breaks with 200 years of tradition to offer a change in design that is inherently fault tolerant and fit for a 21st century rail network.

“With RSSB’s continued support and with industry partners including Transport for London (TfL), we aim to deliver real, tangible benefits to the rail industry.”

Useful links

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Key Facts and Figures

Health has always been an important issue but with life expectancy increasing there is also an ageing population to consider. Advances in healthcare technologies are already supporting the elderly to be cared for within their own homes and improving remote diagnosis and monitoring of health conditions but with ongoing pressures on our health services, continuing to invest in technologies for the future will remain a priority.

EPSRC’s healthcare technologies programme aims to accelerate the translation of research to healthcare applications across four challenges: Developing future therapies; Frontiers of physical intervention; Optimising treatment; and Transforming community health and care.

Spin-out's sale could help transform diabetes treatment

The recent acquisition of Ziylo, a University of Bristol spin-out company rooted in leading-edge EPSRC-funded chemistry research, could mark a major turning-point in the drive to develop safer, more effective treatment of diabetes. In August 2018, Danish pharma giant Novo Nordisk bought the company in a deal potentially worth up to US$800 million and the company now aims to incorporate a ground-breaking glucose-binding molecule developed by Ziylo into a radical new type of insulin.

  • World’s first-ever glucose-responsive insulin now potentially within reach  
  • Could be available to the global healthcare sector within 10 years
  • Could benefit many millions of people living with diabetes around the world  

Novo Nordisk’s goal is to develop an innovative insulin that, by reacting and adapting to glucose levels in the blood (i.e. blood sugar levels), makes it easier for diabetics to manage their condition and minimises the risk of ‘hypos’ – episodes of hypoglycemia, when blood sugar levels fall dangerously low. Hypos are the most common side effect of taking insulin to manage diabetes; they can lead to seizures and, in some cases, can even prove fatal.

Ziylo’s molecule could be a key component in such an insulin thanks to its ability not only to ‘seek out’ glucose in the blood but also to bind to it with unprecedented strength and selectivity. Originally inspired by the carbohydrate-binding molecules found in nature, its discovery followed years of pioneering supramolecular chemistry research by Professor Tony Davis’s research group at the University of Bristol.    

“This extraordinary new molecule appears to be the perfect glucose sensor and could help change the lives of millions of people for the better,” says Professor Davis, who has been at the forefront of research into synthetic sugar receptors for 20 years; his work in this field has been supported by two EPSRC postdoctoral grants and two EPSRC Impact Acceleration Awards. To help translate their academic thinking application, the Ziylo team also received funding of £500,000 through ICURe, an Innovate UK programme which helps university researchers to explore the commercial potential of their work.

Professor Davis says: “Collectively, this funding added real momentum to the process of developing and commercialising our breakthrough. After I had produced initial designs of the new molecule on computer, there were still a lot of challenges that needed to be tackled in terms of actually making it and then securing a patent.” 

A crucial role was played by Robert Tromans, a PhD student at Bristol’s EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Chemical Synthesis where Professor Davis is a supervisor, who joined the Davis Research Group as a direct result of that link.

“My project focused on the synthesis of new types of receptors for carbohydrates,” says Dr Tromans, who finished his PhD and joined Ziylo earlier this year. “One of these receptors formed the basis for the new glucose-binding molecule and I discovered its remarkable binding selectivity for glucose before going on to realise its full potential throughout the rest of my PhD. I worked closely with Ziylo, which enabled the company to further develop the molecule.”

Alongside PhD student Harry Destecroix and Tom Smart, Tony Davis founded Ziylo in 2014. With Ziylo now absorbed into Novo Nordisk following the acquisition deal, vital work to optimise the molecule for use in the new insulin will be undertaken by Carbometrics, a brand new spin-out company co-founded by Professor Davis, Tom Smart, Keith MacDonald and Dr Andy Chapman.

Led by co-founder and CEO, Dr Harry Destecroix, who was also Ziylo’s CEO, Carbometrics is also targeting a highly robust and accurate glucose sensing platform that can be used to create a market-leading Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) solution. The company’s 11-strong team includes former PhD students and post-docs from the Davis Group.

The Ziylo deal could be worth US$800 million depending on the achievement of development, regulatory and sales milestones. The next phase of research will be followed by clinical trials which, it is hoped, will pave the way for the new insulin to become available within around a decade. Novo Nordisk’s investment in UK expertise provides clear evidence of the UK’s international standing in cutting-edge chemistry research and its ability to generate discoveries with huge commercial potential.      

Professor Davis concludes: “The key to the breakthrough was perseverance and determination to produce the perfect molecule for this specific application. Our focus was never simply on making an advance that was interesting purely in academic terms – we were intent on reaching an outcome with genuine potential to deliver major real-world benefits and we’ve succeeded in achieving that.”

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Robotic surgery breakthrough

Professor Sanja Dogramadzi, from Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), University of the West of England, has led the development of a ground-breaking robotic system that enables surgeons to put joint fractures back together using a minimally invasive approach. Supported by an underpinning EPSRC investment, it is the first robot-assisted system designed to deal with this problem. 

  • Ground-breaking robotic system enables surgeons to put joint fractures back together using a minimally invasive approach
  • Technology combines state-of-the-art 3D imaging, pattern recognition and robotic surgery
  • Will ultimately lead to less onerous surgery; perfect fragment re-alignment; improved patient outcomes; and significantly reduced NHS costs 

Working alongside Professor Roger Atkins, an orthopaedic surgeon at University Hospital Bristol, and MATOrtho®, a UK leading medical device company, Professor Dogramadzi received funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to refine the system.

Broken bones that involve joints cause considerable disability and substantial NHS costs. To work properly and avoid painful arthritis, the pieces of the joint must be put back together perfectly. Surgeons do this by making a large incision to open up the area around the joint and see the broken bits. These wounds cause pain, scarring and infection risk and long hospital stays.

The Bristol team’s surgical system combines state-of-the-art 3D imaging, pattern recognition and robotics. It begins with CT scans of healthy and fractured joints. These are ‘interpreted’ by a mathematical algorithm which works out the exact displacement and rotation needed for each fragment to be put back together in exactly the right place. The solution to this 3D puzzle is the starting point for the minimally invasive surgical robotic system that repositions the fragments under the surgeon’s supervision.

Professor Dogramadzi says: “This collaboration is all about taking the latest advances in technology and using them in a real application which will have direct benefits to patients.

“By working closely with surgeons we have been able to design a workable system which will function within the constraints of real surgery and meet the needs of patients. The robots we are developing will enhance the work of surgeons by carrying out complex tasks suited to robots, while the surgeon stays in control and makes the decisions essential to the success of the surgery.

“Ultimately the system allows for earlier and less onerous surgery; reliable, perfect fragment re-alignment; improved patient outcomes; faster rehabilitation; reduced hospital stays; earlier return to work; fewer complications; arthritis avoidance; and significantly reduced NHS costs. 

Bristol Robotics Laboratory is a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol.

The underpinning research and creation of the prototype system was funded by EPSRC and developed in collaboration with Simpleware Ltd, a pioneer of 3D computer modelling software formed in 2003 to bring to market EPSRC-funded research by Professor Philippe Young at the University of Exeter.

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Key Facts and Figures

Food is clearly something that we all have an interest in but we may not have stopped to consider the engineering and physical sciences relating to it, whether that is the packaging it comes in or the technologies used to produce it and transport it. In an ever more connected world, driven by consumer demand, we expect to access food from across the globe at any time of year and advances in technologies are enabling this to happen.

EPSRC has a diverse portfolio of research and training related to food ranging across manufacturing, chemistry, physics and engineering.

Growing plants in underground tunnels

An innovative and award-winning urban farming facility is creating energy-efficient growing conditions in tunnels 120 feet below the busy streets of Clapham in London. Micro greens and salad leaves are thriving with the help of a smart monitoring programme that records temperature, humidity and CO2 levels.

  • Previously dormant tunnels, 120 feet below the streets of London, create energy-efficient growing conditions to sustainably produce the pesticide-free crop
  • Wireless sensors and web cams monitor temperature, humidity, CO2, air velocity and light
  • While the focus is on urban farming the team are looking to repurpose spaces rather than use new buildings

Growing Underground, an award-winning urban farming facility, is working with researchers from the EPSRC-supported Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) to grow micro greens and salad leaves in former WW2 air-raid shelters 120 feet below the streets of London.

The two tunnels, which are on different levels and have a total area of 65,000 square feet, are leased from Transport for London having laid dormant for 60 years. Fed by hydroponic systems, they create energy-efficient growing conditions to sustainably produce the pesticide-free crop. The plants are thriving with the help of a smart monitoring programme developed by the CSIC team that records temperature, humidity and CO2 levels.

The team, led by CSIC Co-Investigator, Dr Ruchi Choudhary, installed wireless sensors and web cams that monitor temperature, humidity, CO2, air velocity and light in a section of the tunnel used for growing crops. More sensors were added in the summer to help to maintain a constant tunnel temperature of between 20-25 degrees Centigrade. Most sensors need cables, but the CSIC team’s sensors are wireless and are designed to cope with the humidity underground.

The aim of Growing Underground is to bring edible crop production to the heart of the city while minimising the carbon impact of food transportation. The verdant trays of fennel, garlic chives, pea shoots and coriander, among others, can be picked and on a plate in a restaurant within hours. The forward-thinking company, which sells its greens through Ocado and Marks & Spencer and aims to be carbon neutral, has just been awarded the BBC Future Food Award.

While the team’s focus is on urban farming they are looking to repurpose spaces rather than use new buildings; these could be tunnels or rooftops that are not currently being used.

Ventilation is the chief energy consumer at the Growing Underground project and real-time monitoring data has enabled adjustments that have cut consumption for ventilation without affecting yield.

The partially crowd-funded company is able to access the data 24/7, creating a ‘lifetime performance passport’ which provides the asset owners, present and future, with a rich source of information.

Richard Ballard, co-founder of Growing Underground, who discovered the tunnels when he was a film student scouting for locations, says: “We have been very lucky to partner with the University of Cambridge. Ruchi and her team have really helped us monitor and develop the space, which will enable us to eventually get the optimum growing environment.

“They have provided us with monthly reports which have allowed us to make adjustments to improve temperature, humidity and air velocity, and now we are working together to improve CO2 levels through enrichment.”

Photography: Christopher Rudquist

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Slow-melt ice cream could lead to lower-calorie foods

University of Edinburgh scientists have unlocked the secret of slower-melting ice cream, thanks to a new food ingredient.

  • Newly discovered protein is more resistant to melting
  • The discovery could also lead to lower calorie foods
  • The protein has potential for use in home and personal based products

Professor Cait MacPhee CBE, from the University of Edinburgh, working with colleagues from the University of Dundee, has discovered a naturally occurring protein, known as BslA, that can be used to create ice cream that is more resistant to melting than conventional products. The protein binds together the air, fat and water in ice cream, creating a super-smooth consistency.

The new ingredient could enable ice creams to keep frozen for longer in hot weather. It could also prevent gritty ice crystals from forming, ensuring a fine, smooth texture like those of luxury ice creams.

The development could allow products to be manufactured with lower levels of saturated fat – and fewer calories – than at present.

The team have developed a method of producing BslA, which occurs naturally in some foods, in friendly bacteria. They estimate that ice cream made with the ingredient could be available within five years. The protein could soon be used not just in ice cream but for home and personal based products.

Professor MacPhee says: “The ice-cream breakthrough is a consequence of my research into protein self-assembly. The self-assembly of proteins underpins the texture of foodstuffs including egg, meat and milk products. My research seeks to understand this process of self-assembly – both to prevent or reverse disease, and to drive the development of new materials and foodstuffs.”

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Key Facts and Figures

Home may be where the heart is but it is also full of engineering and physical sciences research from smart meters to lighting through to the many appliances we now consider to be essential items, and our entertainment systems. Technology has not only improved the efficiency of our heating, lighting and appliances but it has also connected them through the Internet of Things - we can now control everything within our homes remotely.

EPSRC’s portfolio of research and training related to the home stretches across all disciplines but is particularly associated with the digital economy programme.

Improving home energy efficiency

EPSRC-supported researchers at the University of Southampton won the £30,000 first prize at the British Gas Connecting Homes Start up Competition for a system that aims to improve energy efficiency in the home.

The MyJoulo system, developed by Dr Reuben Wilcock and Professor Alex Rogers, led to the launch of a spin-out company, Joulo, which was later acquired by Quby, Europe’s leading developer of smart thermostats and energy displays.

The secret behind Joulo is clever artificial intelligence software, built into the Joulo USB temperature logger, which resembles a conventional USB memory stick. Customers place the device on top of their central heating thermostat and leave it for a week to collect data while the heating is used as normal. They then upload data from the logger to a website to receive instant personalised advice on how to reduce their heating bill.

Joulo was just one of a host of successful projects arising from ORCHID, a major EPSRC-supported project that aims to reinvent our relationship with computers.

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Robotic systems to help the elderly at home

Consequential Robotics, an award-winning University of Sheffield spin-out company, is developing companion and assistive robotic systems that will enhance quality of life as people age.

  • Robots designed to be the eyes, ears and hands of the intelligent house or the smart office
  • Robots behave in a lifelike way and use control systems modelled on the brain
  • Human-centred design focuses on understanding the practical needs of users as well as their emotional wants and dreams
  • Products include a ‘pet’ companion and a smartphone-linked bed-table that can move under its own power

The company, which has won numerous awards and accolades since its launch in 2015, is the brainchild of internationally-acclaimed product designer, Sebastian Conran, and EPSRC-supported researchers, who are building on 20 years’ research at the university into developing robots that behave in a lifelike way and that use control systems modelled on the brain.

Conran, the University of Sheffield’s Designer in Residence, who is supported by an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account, says: “At the heart of our approach is human-centred design – understanding the practical needs of our users as well as their emotional wants and dreams.”

MiRo (pictured), an emotionally engaging ‘pet’ robot companion, is already on the market as a developer version for researchers, and is designed to make decisions, display emotions and respond to others in a truly unique and autonomous way. MiRo’s character and form have been carefully considered to be friendly and approachable, but not toy-like.

Prototypes under development include IntelliTable, an autonomous assistive over-bed table capable of moving under its own power and which can be voice-activated using a smartphone. The IntelliTable platform is being adapted for hospital rehabilitation therapies with partners including the Sheffield Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare.

Professor Tony Prescott, Director of the Sheffield Robotics research institute, who co-founded the company with Conran and Dr Ben Mitchinson, says: “I’m convinced of the value of including design at an early stage in the development of robotic projects.

“Our emphasis is on understanding how people will use robots in their lives at home, at work, and in shared spaces. Robots will be the eyes, ears and hands of the intelligent house or the smart office, designed to work quietly, safely and unobtrusively; complementing and assisting people, not replacing them.”

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Key Facts and Figures

Whether we are talking about primary, secondary, further or postgraduate education, we are all passionate about ensuring access to the best learning experience that is available. That might mean investing in environments that encourage learning, technologies that support teaching or research that impacts education policy. But it also means inspiring and motivating students at all stages of their education.

EPSRC’s education portfolio spans all these areas, using ICT and digital technologies to enhance learning and working with public engagement partners to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training – building skills for a prosperous nation

EPSRC is the largest investor in doctoral training in the UK, providing young engineers and scientists with the skills, knowledge and confidence to tackle evolving issues and future challenges.

  • Around £500 million invested in 115 EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs)
  • Over £450 million matched funding from industry and other partners
  • CDTs span 49 UK universities involved in training over 7,000 students
  • Around 40 per cent of all EPSRC-funded students go on to work in business or public services

Since 2013, EPSRC has invested around £500 million in 115 EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs). This investment has been matched by more than £450 million from business, universities and other stakeholders, creating the UK’s largest investment in postgraduate training in engineering and physical sciences.

Spanning over 40 UK universities and training over 7,000 students, CDTs bring together diverse areas of expertise to ensure advances in research in many areas of fundamental science and engineering, as well as providing future leaders in key areas for the UK economy including energy, data science, manufacturing, materials and healthcare technology.

Each centre trains doctoral students for four years. The programme includes technical and transferrable skills training, as well as a research element. They provide a supportive and exciting environment for students, creating new working cultures, building relationships between teams in universities and forging lasting links with industry.

The investments are crucial to avoid systemic skills shortages in the UK. Many of the centres involve research that connects to key industries and important technologies which aid innovation and growth. Over 1,000 industry and charity partners are involved in the centres, leveraging around £450 million worth of support.

As an example, the EPSRC CDT in Future Infrastructure and Built Environment at the University of Cambridge aims to develop world-class multidisciplinary engineers equipped to face current and future challenges related to infrastructure and the built environment. The centre’s industrial partners work closely with it to shape its training programme and ensure this meets the UK’s skills requirements. The centre is receiving EPSRC funding of £4.2 million and nearly £5 million in industrial support.

Tim Embley, Innovation Director at engineering multinational, Costain, says: “The teams emerging from this CDT will be the next-generation business leaders who will solve some of the most pressing challenges faced by the infrastructure sector. It’s vitally important that industry has a pipeline of innovation emerging from research relationships with experienced people with the knowledge to implement solutions. The CDT is meeting this need.”

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Well-designed classrooms can boost learning

A University of Salford research project has found clear evidence that well-designed primary school classrooms boost children’s learning progress in reading, writing and maths.

  • Classroom design can boost learning progress by up to 16 per cent a year
  • Light, temperature, air quality, level of stimulation and individualisation in the classroom design were among the biggest physical factors impacting on pupils’ learning progress
  • Research led to quick and cost effective ways for teachers to improve their classrooms

The EPSRC-supported research team, with initial support from architectural firm, IBI Architects (previously Nightingale Associates), looked at 153 classrooms across 27 primary schools in Blackpool and other areas across the UK, collecting data on pupils’ progress. Their findings showed that differences in the physical design of the classrooms explained 16 per cent of the variation in the annual learning progress of the 3,766 pupils involved.

The study considered a wide range of sensory factors and used multi-level statistical modelling techniques to isolate the effects of classroom design from the influences of other factors, such as the pupils themselves and their teachers. The results have generated a high level of interest amongst teachers, designers and policymakers, including the World Bank.  

The team found that the biggest physical factors impacting on pupils’ learning progress were in three areas, stimulation, individualisation and naturalness, or SIN for short. Their research identified many simple, quick and cost-effective ways for teachers to change their classrooms to make a real difference to a child’s performance in reading, writing and maths.

The project was led by Professor Peter Barrett, from the University’s School of the Built Environment. He says: “It has long been known that various aspects of the built environment impact on people in buildings, but this is the first time a holistic assessment has been made that successfully links the overall impact directly to learning rates in schools. The impact identified is in fact greater than we imagined.

 “We’re not talking about major investment on behalf of the school or local authority – quite the opposite. The focus is on simple choices about how classrooms are used and evidence-based decisions when schools are being built.

“I hope our ‘Clever Classrooms’ report will become a valuable asset for teachers and school designers across the UK, and beyond, and can make a real and lasting impact on children’s learning progress at such an important stage in a child’s development.”

John Coe, Chair of the National Association for Primary Education, says: “The research offers sound sense; and teachers, putting children first as always, can improve their classrooms without spending a lot of money.”

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Financial services

Key Facts and Figures

Whether we use traditional high street banks or prefer to manage our finances online, the security of our information and data is critical. Similarly, we all recognise the importance of insurance but we take for granted the complex algorithms and data crunching that go on in the background to define and price the policies we are issued.

EPSRC’s portfolio around financial services relies heavily on the mathematical sciences as well as the ICT, digital economy and cybersecurity programmes.

Quantum tech secures online data transmission with new microchips

EPSRC-supported researchers at the University of Bristol, with international partners, have harnessed the strange world of quantum mechanics to ensure that online data – from bank transactions and internet shopping to the data used in systems that maintain critical infrastructure – is safe at all times.

  • Quantum technologies create unbreakable encryption codes for online data transmission
  • Sectors that could immediately benefit from ‘unlimited lifetime’ security include telecommunications, finance, government and defence
  • The technology has been integrated into microchips within a single platform, paving the way for use in mobile devices
  • Award-winning spin-out company set up to bring ‘single photon’ technology to market

Complex cryptography protects our bank accounts and identities from fraud, as today’s computers are too slow to juggle the billions of permutations needed to crack the virtual codes they employ. But the potential introduction of ultra-powerful quantum computers, which can crunch numbers at near-light speeds, renders our personal information vulnerable to direct attack from eavesdroppers equipped with this technology.

The Bristol team’s quantum key distribution technology turns tables on the attackers through the development of devices that exploit quantum properties, such as absolute randomness, superposition, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, to create quantum secured communications systems.

Unlike conventional chips that convey data using electricity, the new chips use photons – single particles of light – in different quantum states to encode and exchange information, or in this case secure digital keys.

Thanks to the spooky nature of quantum mechanics the result is an unbreakable ‘quantum encryption key’ with an unlimited lifetime. Though mind-bogglingly complex, the security of the team’s quantum key distribution technology is based on a simple principle: if any eavesdropper tries to access the key by measuring the photons that fly between legitimate users, they will necessarily disturb them, alerting the users to their presence. It seems that quantum mechanics gives us a nice, built-in eavesdropping detection mechanism. Since we are only transmitting the key (not message data) and waiting to verify it is secure before use, one’s data is never at risk.

This work has been supported by the UK Quantum Communication Hub, part of a national network funded by EPSRC under the National Quantum Technologies Programme, and is being brought to market by KETS Quantum Security Ltd, an award-winning company formed by Dr Phil Sibson; Dr Chris Erven; Dr Jake Kennard, and Professor Mark Thompson.

Professor Thompson, the project’s principal investigator, says: “If an eavesdropper hacks your transmission, the fragile quantum state will instantly collapse and the system will terminate the transmission, immediately alerting you of the eavesdropper’s presence.”

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Smarter maths generates better value insurance products

Research into data mining and statistical analysis by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), has created more competitive insurance products while pioneering key advances in computer science and statistics for industry.

  • Research led to key advances in computer science and statistics for industry
  • Helped generate more competitive quotes for Aviva’s general insurance and pensions customers
  • Enabled savings of many millions as a result of changes in pricing for general insurance products
  • Saved £150,000 saved through an in-house risk costing project

In collaboration with UK insurance group, Aviva (formerly Norwich Union), the research has led to considerably improved Aviva products and more competitive quotations for customers while maintaining the company’s profitability. It also helped pioneer data mining techniques today relied on by a host of industries and sectors, from banking to retail, security to social sciences.

The research is now led by Professor Elena Kulinskaya, Aviva Chair in Statistics at UEA, who has used it to tackle specific challenges relating to medical statistics and the insurance industry, such as customers’ future longevity.

Professor Kulinskaya’s work builds on EPSRC and Norwich Union-supported studies in the 1990s led by Professor Vic Rayward-Smith, a pioneer in the emerging discipline of data mining. Using advanced computer algorithms, data mining makes it possible to identify potentially useful patterns, such as customer preferences, from vast and complex data sets.

Professor Rayward-Smith and Dr Beatriz de la Iglesia, then a Postdoctoral Research Associate, were among the first to describe how data mining could be used in industrial applications. With the advent of the Big Data era, data mining and tools such as those developed by the UEA team are now essential to identify patterns and future trends across a wide range of sectors, from the insurance industry to healthcare; telecommunications to retail.

The managing director of Aviva Life’s At Retirement division acknowledges the value of the UEA research. He says: “Insurance is a very competitive industry and correct pricing and marketing are core to our survival. It’s difficult to quantify the exact savings that UEA’s input has made to Aviva, but it would certainly run into many millions”

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Sport and recreation

Key Facts and Figures

Sport is part of our national identity; it has positive impact on our physical and mental health; and it adds £38 billion to the UK economy each year. Whether we enjoy playing sport or watching it, and whatever other ways we chose to relax and unwind in our spare time, the engineering and physical sciences enhance our experience through the application of new technologies that improve equipment and performance. 

EPSRC’s research and training portfolio in this area is diverse, stretching across its engineering, ICT, Mathematical Sciences and Digital Economy programmes. 

Skeleton athlete design wins triple Olympic gold

In February 2018, Lizzy Yarnold sped to gold medal success in the skeleton event at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics – repeating her triumph four years earlier at the Sochi games in Russia. But her double achievement was not just a reward for her dedication and athleticism, it was also a triumph for UK engineering design.

  • EPSRC-supported doctoral students designed triple-Olympic gold medal-winning sled
  • Research involved cutting-edge computer modelling and wind tunnel testing
  • After receiving their Engineering Doctorates both designers were employed by Formula 1 legend McLaren 

Yarnold’s victories were achieved on a skeleton sled co-designed by Rachel Blackburn and James Roche, former EPSRC doctoral students at the University of Southampton. In addition to designing Yarnold’s double-gold-winning sled, nicknamed Mervyn, Blackburn and Roche were responsible for Amy Williams’ gold medal-winning sled ‘Arther’ at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Although constantly updated with the latest technology, the core design for Mervyn has remained the same since it was built in 2009.

The design emerged after a four-year project at the university’s Performance Sports Engineering Lab, which combined experimental work with the latest computational analysis techniques. The sled was tested in the university’s R J Mitchell wind tunnel with the aim of improving understanding of skeleton performance.

In 2010 Rachel and James joined McLaren Applied Technologies, an offshoot of the Formula One company based in Woking, Surrey. This enabled them to bring further improvements to the design of the sled.

James has since joined INEOS TeamUK the British yacht racing team led by Sir Ben Ainslie, where he is Performance & Data Analysis Team Leader. In 2021 the team will be challenging to win the 36th America’s Cup.

Rachel, who was design engineer for the British Skeleton in PyeongChang, says: “The skills we learned from the Engineering Doctorate programme at Southampton, coupled with the ideas and knowledge of the British Skeleton and UKSport support staff, gave us a good grounding for implementing engineering solutions. Working with the athletes themselves helped us put our ideas into practice.

“The project also allowed us to develop new skills – from track testing, data analysis and prototyping through to full roll-out production of the sled.”

James says: “It was a fantastic honour to work with British Skeleton, supporting Amy, Lizzy and their fellow athletes in their respective successes.

EPSRC funding was the catalyst that allowed Rachel and myself to pursue an academic and latterly engineering career in such a unique and challenging field.”

Picture courtesy UK Sport.

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Fast-track algorithms drive F1/Supercar success

A long-standing R&D collaboration between Professor Malcolm Smith, from the University of Cambridge, and legendary British supercar maker and Formula One giant, McLaren, has led to revolutionary suspension technology now employed in all Formula One cars, and which could have wider applications, such as in the railways of the future.

  • Applied fundamental science revolutionises suspension technology now used by all Formula 1 teams and in other motor sports
  • The technology has other potential applications, such as for use on railways
  • Further research led to acclaimed suspension system in latest McLaren 720S supercar
  • Demonstrates benefits of long-term academic/industry partnerships

Professor Smith’s latest breakthrough is a semi-active suspension system for the McLaren 720S supercar, developed with PhD student Panos Brezas. In March 2018, Top Gear presenter and racing car driver, Chris Harris, described the system as “So good… It’s like witchcraft.”

The cornerstone of Professor Smith’s research is a fusion of cutting-edge mathematical theory, physics and modelling, applied to solve real-world engineering problems.  

The partnership between McLaren and Professor Smith dates back to the late 1990s, and grew out of research into mechanical networks and suspension systems forged from an earlier partnership with the Williams Formula 1 team. This collaboration led to the development of active race car suspension systems so successful that they were eventually banned by Formula One’s governing body, which demanded a return to ‘passive’ suspension set-ups.

Following the 1994 ban, Professor Smith started looking at the fundamentals of passive suspension, and entered into a collaboration with McLaren.

Standard suspension systems are based around two components – springs and shock absorbers. Together, these components absorb and dissipate energy in order to improve a vehicle’s ride and handling. Smith’s solution was ingenious – a third component, coined the Inerter, which was used to control a car’s oscillations, improve mechanical grip and cut lap times. It was developed by the McLaren team under an exclusive licensing agreement with the university, which filed a patent for it in 2001.

After extensive design studies, computer simulations, prototype development and track tests, McLaren first used the Inerter competitively in its MP4-20 car at the 2005 Spanish Grand Prix, which Kimi Raikkonen drove all the way to victory. This is hardly surprising, as the device was said to reduce lap times by up to four tenths of a second – a huge margin by Formula One standards. Raikkonen’s victory was followed by McLaren triumphs in 10 of the remaining 15 races of the season.

The Inerter remained a closely guarded secret until confidentiality restrictions associated with the original licence were lifted in 2008, and the device was then licensed to Penske Racing Shocks to provide Inerters to other Formula 1 teams. Penske has since begun supplying Inerters to other motor sports, including IndyCar, which has used them since 2012.

Paddy Lowe, Chief Technical Officer at Williams Martini Racing and former Executive Director (Technical) of the Mercedes Formula One team, is among many who acknowledge the scale of Malcolm Smith’s achievements. He says: “The Inerter… (is) now of equal rank to the spring and the damper in our constant search for higher levels of grip and stability.”

Professor Smith and his team continue to refine the technology, and have shown that inerters have great potential for railway suspension systems, where they would reduce wear on the tracks and wheels, lowering costs for the carriers and providing a more comfortable ride for the passengers. It could also be used in motorbikes to control steering oscillations and improve safety.

Professor Smith says: “New potential application areas are being thought of with some regularity – helicopters, motorcycles, machine tools… even tall buildings could benefit from the use of Inerters.

“What’s really nice is that McLaren has recognised an academic contribution – companies don’t always do that. Hopefully McLaren feel it is good to be associated with advanced academic work.”

Fast-forward to 2017, and the launch of the latest McLaren supercar – the 720S – a commercially available road model that has been hailed as the next stage of supercar evolution.

Boasting a raft of technological breakthroughs, the 212mph 720S is fractionally slower than the £800,000 McLaren P1 hypercar, is easier to drive, yet, at £200,000, is a quarter of its price. 

Crucial to the car’s extraordinary performance is a ‘semi-active’ suspension system that permits optimal control at all times, no matter the road conditions. It was designed using a theory developed by Professor Smith with his former EPSRC-supported PhD student Dr Panos Brezas. Their work was complemented by a third member of the team, McLaren’s Principal Chassis Research Engineer, Will Hoult, a former EPSRC-funded PhD student at Cambridge, who took charge of the algorithm development at McLaren.  

The team’s work helped the car’s designers to achieve superior performance in ride comfort and handling simultaneously. Sensors relay the state of the road and an on-board computer analyses the information every millisecond to find the best possible setting for components – called semi-adjustable dampers.

The results are phenomenal. BBC Top Gear presenter and racing driver, Chris Harris, who tested the car in March 2018, has described the car’s handling as “racing car like”, resulting in “a brilliant British bargain”.

Professor Smith modestly shrugs off his own contribution to the McLaren 720S supercar, saying: “I am a control systems specialist and theorist. It is just another example of a control system.”

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