Seven talented engineering researchers have received a prestigious RAEng/Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering to help support their careers while they focus solely on the development of new technologies.

Among this year’s projects are some with potentially life-changing medical applications, like a new device to measure intra-cranial pressure in trauma victims, a brain-controlled system to help people manage neuro-rehabilitation at home and a next-generation virtual reality trainer for surgeons with an enhanced sense of touch.

Others could revolutionise computing, such as a new photon source to help bring quantum computing closer to reality and deep learning hardware architectures using ‘memristors’, a new device that could help create intelligent computers.

Other projects supported include a new way of tackling carbon capture and storage by incorporating CO2 into concrete mixtures, and improving understanding of turbulence in fluids, which could help to improve the design of wind turbines and jet engines.

Professor William Milne FREng, Chair of the Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowships selection panel said: “Academic career progression often comes with increased administrative and teaching commitments, at the expense of the time available for personal research projects.

“The Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowships are awarded to relieve mid-career academics of the additional workload to enable them to go back and personally focus on their research.

“Like all research supported by the Academy, the Fellowships are designed to foster world class engineering that is directly useful to industry and society.”

This year’s Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellows and their research in detail are:

 

Dr Piotr Dudek - University of Manchester

Analog Computation with Novel Nanodevices for Machine Learning

Over the past 60 years, the advances in electronic computing have been facilitated by the steady technological progress in the miniaturisation of transistors, one of the most essential components of modern computers and electronic devices. Smaller transistors allowed an exponential increase in the complexity in the design of microchips and their capabilities.

This miniaturisation process, though, is reaching its physical limits, and the evolution of computing and electronics will need novel nano-scale device technology to continue. Unlike conventional transistors, such devices are often characterised by high variability and complex behaviour, which are not compatible with conventional approaches to the design of computer systems.

Some of the most promising alternatives are inspired by the working of the human brain. Neuromorphic systems and deep learning architectures are emerging as alternatives to traditional computation.

Dr Piotr Dudek’s work is focussing on finding how novel nanoscale devices, such as "memristors", could be used effectively in new forms of computing hardware. His research spans devices, circuits and system and algorithmic levels, drawing inspiration from statistical machine learning and biological intelligent systems.

Professor Stephen Garrett– University of Leicester

Understanding transition in boundary-layer flows over rotating geometries

Many of the innovations we rely on in today’s world would have been impossible without a fundamental understanding of fluid mechanics, the study of how fluids such as liquids and gases move and interact.

The application of this knowledge in engineering design has enabled faster cars, quieter and more efficient planes and even cooling systems in our computers. The energy to power these innovations also depends on developments in this field, whether generated from fossil fuels, nuclear, wind turbines or hydropower. None of these would be possible without a sound understanding of fluid mechanics.

A particularly important area of study is the transition of a smoothly moving fluid to chaotic turbulence. Turbulence, in fact, can be promoted to achieve better mixing of fuels in engines, or delayed, in aerodynamic applications, to reduce drag.

Professor Garrett, a mathematical engineer, is seeking to understand the mechanisms by which rotating fluids undergo a transition to turbulence. Examples of these transitions are found at the air intake of jet engines, over wind turbines, or even within chemical reactors.

Understanding the physics behind these transitions is fundamental to improve the design of structures where a transition to turbulence has to be avoided or it is required.

Professor Garrett works with experimentalists and computer modellers around the world to ensure an understanding of all aspects of this field, from the fundamental physics through to engineering design and manufacture.

Dr ChenFeng Li – University of Swansea

Real Time Computational Methods for Complex High-Fidelity Surgical Simulation

Surgical training is a key stage of a surgeon’s education, and is traditionally done through a "master-apprentice" relationship where the trainee learns a surgical procedure by repeating steps performed by the master.

However, this traditional method of teaching has severe shortcomings, including patient safety, costs and ethical issues, which call for a different approach that can circumvent these obstacles yet deliver the high standard of training required by the profession.

Surgical simulators, allowing trainees to perform virtual operation procedures on simulated organs, are often used in early stages of training but the quality of the experience is far from ideal. Even the latest models are often regarded by surgeons as oversimplified, providing cartoon-like visual feedback, and lacking "feeling".

Dr Chenfeng Li’s research project, COMFISS, aims at developing complex, high-fidelity surgical simulations using real-time computational methods, which not only support complicated procedures, but also provide force feedback and evaluate the trainee’s performance in real time

Thanks to a blend of Computational Mechanics and Computer Graphics, Dr Li will deliver the computational methods and algorithms required to make such simulations a reality.

Dr Cyril Lynsdale – University of Sheffield

Recycling of carbon dioxide in mortar and concrete

The production of Portland cement, the raw material for concrete, gives rise to nearly 10% of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced globally by industry.

To reduce the carbon footprint, a number of solutions are being explored, including the use of different raw materials and processes, but the sustainable supply of viable replacements for clinker, the basic ingredient for cement, is in question and other strategies are needed.

One way of reducing the carbon footprint of cement-making is to re-incorporate CO2 into concrete itself. During its life-time concrete is able to re-absorb half of the CO2 released in its manufacture. However, the process is slow and does not progress to a significant level naturally.

Attempts made to accelerate the process, e.g. carbonation curing, have resulted in CO2 absorption limited only to the outer parts of concrete; Dr Cyril Lynsdale’s project aims to find a way to incorporate CO2 directly into mortar and concrete at the mixing stage, locking it in chemically and uniformly throughout the material.

As part of the project, Dr Lynsdale’s process will initially be most suitable for precast applications, where it may also be possible to produce concrete with insulating properties to reduce the energy used for space heating.

Dr Rachel Oliver - University of Cambridge

Understanding and utilising nitride nanostructures

The emerging fields of optical quantum computing and encryption have the potential to bring great improvements in the speed at which we can process data and to improve the security of data exchanges. These technologies use single photons, particles which constitute the smallest possible quantity of light, to carry information.

Developing reliable and robust photon sources is essential to ensure the advancement of the field, especially if it is to find more widespread application.

Gallium Nitride (GaN) has great potential for the development of sources of single photons and pairs of entangled photons for use in these systems, as it allows sources to work at room temperature, while most other materials that have been explored for these applications require cryogenic temperatures.

However, several engineering challenges need to be overcome to make GaN systems commercially viable and Dr Rachel Oliver, already successful in developing a single photon source based on GaN and its alloys, will work to understand the link between the structure of single photon-emitting structures and their properties and performance.

This new knowledge will allow her to develop optimised structures for single photon sources that are robust and provide efficient performance.

Dr Justin Phillips – City University London

A non-invasive continuous monitor of intracranial pressure

In the UK there are approximately 50,000 cases of severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) per year, most resulting in death or severe disability.  Raised intracranial pressure (or ICP) is a life-threatening condition that can result in compression of brain tissue and a reduction in the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain. 

Monitoring ICP can prove life-saving, but the standard methods are invasive and take time to establish, as they require drilling the skull and inserting a sensor in the brain, which creates delay in emergency situations and increases the risk of infection.

Although non-invasive methods to measure ICP have been developed, they do not allow continuous monitoring.  Measurement of blood pressure in the retinal veins or imaging-based techniques have shown promising results but all require considerable user intervention.

 

Dr Justin Phillips is developing a completely non-invasive optical probe that can be placed on the forehead, for continuous external monitoring of ICP. The probe will illuminate the deep brain tissue and detect the pulsation of cerebral arteries. The shape of the optical pulse wave is affected by changes in the pressure surrounding the arteries allowing calculation of the ICP, which will be displayed to the clinician in real time. 

Use of the probe in trauma units will provide warning of the need for rapid intervention and guide long-term treatment.  Ultimately this could lead to significant improvements in mortality, length of hospital stays and reduced post-trauma disability.

Dr Aleksandra Vučkovič- University of Glasgow

Home based patient-managed neurorehabilitation following spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injuries have devastating effects on the life of patients and their families. Numerous promising therapies are available, but these are typically available only in hospitals and clinics due to costly and complex equipment that often requires trained clinical staff to operate. Patients with such injuries have a prolonged recovery which extends beyond the time of hospital therapy.

Dr Aleksandra Vuckovic’s research focuses on developing and testing a rehabilitation system for prolonged home-based therapy, based on a brain-computer interface, a device that can recognise the commands sent by the brain to the limbs, for example.

This wearable and inexpensive system is initially being designed specifically for the rehabilitation of the hand, as its mobility is a major prerequisite for independent living. The second immediate application will be the treatment of persistent central neuropathic pain, which affects 40% of people with spinal cord injury. This decreases quality of life and is an additional cause of depression in patients.

The key feature of Dr Vuckovic’s work is the development of an intuitive user interface, easy to operate by both patients and caregivers. To meet this requirement, the system will be tested at home rather than in a clinical setting.

The system aims to enable prolonged rehabilitation to be carried out in the comfort of a patient’s home, which will also help to reduce the strain on NHS facilities. It could also be incorporated into a wider tele-healthcare system and make rehabilitation available to people living further away from specialist facilities.

For more information contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering,
T: 020 7766 0636
E: Jane Sutton

  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.
  1. 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.