Improving risk assessment and decommissioning in the nuclear energy industry, helping patients overcome transplant rejections, redesigning fibre optic networks for increased capacity and developing a new generation of powered wheelchairs - these are among the advances being developed by seven outstanding engineering researchers who have each received a prestigious RAEng/Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The other selected projects have a strong emphasis on simulation and modelling, with focus on faster computing, developing more efficient ways to simulate living organisms down to the atomic scale or predicting the effects of stress inside new materials.

These fellowships are awarded to enable mid-career academics to focus on their research and further develop their careers and are part of the Royal Academy of Engineering's programme to support world class engineering research that is directly useful to industry or has high growth potential.

Dr Haofeng Chen - Inside metal composites
University of Strathclyde

Metal matrix composites (MMCs) are materials increasingly employed in industry, such as construction, aerospace and automotive, thanks to their superior physical properties. These include combinations of light weight, high strength and stiffness, resistance to wear, low friction and inertia, resistance or thermal conductivity.

Currently, the way these materials are designed is based on experiment, by producing the materials first and assessing their qualities afterwards, as predicting certain properties of these materials is still a challenge.

Dr Chen is working on the development of a novel simulation technique to predict the behaviour of these complex materials under physical or thermal stress to determine their performance before the material itself is produced.

The computerised prediction tool will predict the formation of cracks and deformations in the MMCs caused by stressors based on the materials' composition and structure, allowing the design of composites tailored for very specific uses and to more accurately determine the lifespan of existing materials.

Dr Marianne Ellis - Scaling up immune cell therapies for organ transplants
University of Bath

Tens of thousands people receive life-saving organ transplants worldwide every year and the vast majority of them are required to take drugs that prevent rejection for the rest of their lives. Because they suppress the immune system, these drugs leave patients susceptible to infections and other conditions.

New hope of a better treatment lies in the use of special type of cells, called regulatory T-cells, (Treg) that will 'teach' the body to accept the transplanted tissue after one single dose.

Dr Ellis' research focuses on devising a scalable procedure to produce large enough numbers of Treg cells to treat skin transplant patients within the required timescale of two weeks from operation, when most skin transplants fail.

Dr Paola Lettieri - A life cycle approach for nuclear waste management
University College London

In order meet its carbon dioxide (CO2) emission targets, the UK needs more low carbon energy sources. Among the available sources, the share of energy coming from nuclear power is projected to increase by 40 to 50% by 2050. For this to be possible, there are societal and technological hurdles to overcome.

To be accepted as a major component of the energy mix, nuclear power generators will need to demonstrate that they can safely dispose of waste and efficiently decommission structures. Comparing risks and benefits of nuclear with other sources of power will also require more comprehensive assessment of the impact of plant and processes during their entire life-cycle, from ore mining through to decommissioning.

Dr Lettieri's research will help improve the assessment of the environmental impact of nuclear waste management and decommissioning by finding an efficient way to include the effect of ionising radiation in the impact assessment.

The results will feed into good practice for nuclear waste management and plant decommissioning and will support policy and decision making on nuclear power.

Dr Dmitry Nerukh - Personal supercomputer for modelling living structures at the atomic level
Aston University

New advances in microscopic molecular measurements allow today's researchers to see deeper than ever into the structure of matter, such as the observation of viruses down to their constituent atoms. Better knowledge of the structure of organisms makes it possible for researchers to simulate their behaviour on an atomic level with computer models.

To be useful biologically and medically, simulating the behaviour of such small organisms needs to include the effects created by water, always present in and around organisms. It also needs to span relatively long time intervals to allow observation of their actions.

Dr Nerukh is working to solve both problems simultaneously. By combining two existing modelling techniques, molecular dynamics and continuum fluid dynamics, he will simulate an entire living virus, and investigate the workings of its protective protein shell among other processes.

This project could directly benefit the biomolecular research community, by providing a tool that could help to determine, for example, which interactions hold a virus's shell together.

Professor Thomas Nowotny - Faster computer simulation of nature
University of Sussex

In many disciplines, the use of computer models and simulations has become an essential tool for predicting and understanding the behaviour of natural, physiological or artificial systems. The size and accuracy of these models is mainly limited by the computational speed of the machines used.

Professor Nowotny is developing a way of increasing computational speed to allow larger and more complex simulations to be run. He is exploiting a combination of graphical processing units (GPUs), known to be 10 to 1,000 times faster than a single core of a processor in a contemporary PC, with artificial neural networks that can be used for forecasting and data mining

Running the latter on a GPU requires huge coding efforts and the development of algorithms but will result in much faster simulations.

Possible applications include more precise flood risk models and the simulation of neural networks as they occur in the brain for use in neuroscience research.

Dr David Sanders - Improving mobility and quality of life for children with disabilities
University of Portsmouth

Powered wheelchairs can greatly improve the lives of their users; to some, they give the first ever chance to be mobile and to gain a degree of independence and self-sufficiency.

As part of his research, Dr Sanders will work to further improve powered wheelchairs by equipping them with on-board artificial intelligence (AI) to make even easier to use.

Thanks to the introduction of AI, the new control system will be able to incorporate proximity sensors and interpret the hand movements of the user on the controls to cancel shake and reduce veer to prevent user tiredness and collisions. Ultimately, it could also make it possible for the wheelchair controls to operate other devices needed by the user.

Dr Sebastian Savory - Boosting optical fibre networks
University College London

Optical fibres underpin modern global communications and are responsible for transporting more than 99% of international internet traffic. Historically optical fibres were thought to offer unlimited bandwidth. However, as a result of the exponential growth in internet traffic, optical fibres are fast approaching their fundamental limits.

A nonlinear effect in the optical fibre, the slight change in the speed of light with the intensity of the optical signal, results in what is being termed a 'capacity crunch' as we approach bandwidth exhaust, requiring new approaches to extracting as much capacity as possible out of the optical network.

Dr Savory is seeking to redefine the way that optical networks are designed by taking into account the nonlinearity of the fibre and the uncertainty caused by the statistical variations present at the design stage, enabling existing optical networks to be redesigned to increase their capacity.

Notes for editors

  1. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK's national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering.We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK's role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK's world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.
  2. The RAEng/Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowships are part of the Royal Academy of Engineering's initiatives and grants to support engineering research. The Fellowships are awarded to mid-career academics to free up their time from administrative and teaching responsibilities for up to a year and so allow them to concentrate on research. The award is designed to cover the cost of a replacement member of staff for the period of the Fellowship to cover the awardee's administrative and teaching responsibilities.

For more information please contact:

Giorgio De Faveri at the Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel: 020 7766 0655
Email: Giorgio De Faveri

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