Seven Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowships have been awarded to engineering researchers whose projects have the potential to bring radical innovation to their fields.

The fellowships provide outstanding researchers with financial support and mentoring for five years to enable them to establish independent careers in research.

Each of the seven research projects addresses unresolved or critical issues in a specific engineering field and has the potential to lead to significant breakthroughs, benefiting both the research community and industry.

This year’s winners promise to deliver significant advances, including new composite materials that could replace metal in several applications; safer, high-performance metal alloys for the nuclear industry; “many-core” computers outperforming the best machines available today and software that can process sounds like a human ear.

Other projects are looking into new ways to use light to transfer information, as the capacity of fibre optic networks approaches its limit, and improving medical technology, developing novel techniques for brain imaging and better designed prostheses for amputees.

Professor Ric Parker CBE FREng, Director of Research and Technology, Rolls-Royce Group, and Chair of the Academy's Research and Secondments Committee, said: “Innovation is crucial to keep the UK ahead of its competitors in today’s highly competitive globalised market, and it is thanks to the work of outstanding researchers such as the recipients of this year’s Research Fellowships that the country can develop and maintain a technological advantage.”

“As part of the Engineering for Growth campaign, the Academy is committed to showing the key role engineering plays in creating industrial and economic growth for the benefit of society as a whole. Supporting the best and most impactful engineering research is one way of ensuring that the flow of innovation continues uninterrupted.

“As every year, the applications we received for these positions were numerous and of the highest quality, which makes the selection process very difficult. The winning candidates were truly outstanding, with a clear vision for their future work and career. I wish them all the best and an exciting future in research."

This year's new Research Fellows are Dr Emmanouil Benetos of City University London, Dr Ben Britton and Dr Osório de Castro Pimenta, of Imperial College London, Dr Alexander Stephen Dickinson of the University of Southampton, Dr Martin P.J. Lavery of the University of Glasgow, Dr Thomas Okell of the University of Oxford and Dr Antoniu Pop of the University of Manchester.

Software inspired by the human ear

Dr Emmanouil Benetos, Queen Mary University of London

Audio analysis, also known as machine listening, is the process of discriminating and extracting information from sound using specially designed software. These techniques have many applications, including bioacoustics, centred on the analysis of natural sounds, security and surveillance, where they can be used for crime detection, and music technology applications for automatic indexing of music collections.

Despite advances in processing power that allow large volumes of data to be analysed, it is still a challenge to develop a tool that works for any application and can separate different sounds and discriminate between useful sound and noise.

Dr Benetos aims to develop  versatile algorithms able to separate and interpret sounds, based on the way the human auditory system works. His fellowship will produce a multipurpose software tool capable of analysing music recordings and complex acoustic scenarios.

Better materials for safer reactors

Dr Ben Britton, Imperial College London

The UK’s increasing demand for electricity looks set to continue into future decades. The consequent need for low carbon energy is driving a renaissance of nuclear power, with two new plant being commissioned at Hinkley Point.

A major research priority is the understanding and development of materials able to withstand the harsh environment of a nuclear reactor. Ensuring the safety and performance of these materials is paramount.

Dr Britton is focusing his research effort in this field, studying two of the alloys generally used to build reactor cladding, tubing and heat exchangers. Combining techniques that can measure deformations on a microscopic scale with conventional mechanical testing, Dr Britton will develop models that predict how to process these alloys and how they perform in service in harsh environments over long periods of time.

A better understanding of how these materials behave will enable improved design, manufacture and management of materials to increase both the safety and life span of nuclear power plants.

Novel carbon-fibre composites for large scale and sustainable applications

Dr Soraia Pimenta, Imperial College London

Fibre-based composites are materials made up of a reinforcement of continuous, aligned fibres embedded in a matrix of another material. The reinforcement confers additional properties on the material, such as increased rigidity or strength, but assembling the core is a complex process.

Dr Pimenta is working on a new family of composites, called multiscale discontinuous composites (MDCs) in which the reinforcement is composed of discontinuous, randomly oriented bundles of fibres, particularly carbon, recycled or natural fibres, called generally discontinuous fibre composites (DFCs).

Using a discontinuous reinforcement allows these materials to be moulded into complex shapes and automating production, making MDCs cost- and time-efficient. The multiscale architecture, with fibres clustered in bundles rather than dispersed in the matrix, allows large amounts of fibre to be incorporated into the final material, which improves the mechanical properties of MDCs.

Despite the outstanding manufacturability, the non-regular structure of DFCs makes it difficult to design and predict their response to mechanical loading and other forces. However, when fully understood and optimised, DFCs could replace steel and aluminium in automotive construction and even compete with the composites currently used in aerospace, lowering both manufacturing costs and environmental impact.

Dr Pimenta is developing mathematical models to assist engineers in designing and predicting the behaviour of structures manufactured with new MDCs. Her new models will also help to understand and optimise the mechanical properties of this new family of composites.

Next generation prosthetic limbs

Dr Alex Dickinson, University of Southampton

The development of advanced prosthetic limb technologies has allowed lower limb amputees to recover an increasing amount of function and mobility. However, the level of mobility achievable is heavily dependent on successful rehabilitation after surgery, and on optimal fitting of the prosthetic limb.

In amputation surgery, muscles are wrapped over the cut end of the bone to create a soft tissue pad, allowing loads to be transferred between the skeleton and the prosthetic limb. However, muscle tissue is optimised to transmit tensile stress, so the soft tissues need time to adapt to their new function, transmitting shear and compression. Furthermore, the size of the residual limb can vary throughout the day as a result of temperature and hydration, and it often shrinks in the months following amputation, because of muscle atrophy.

These changes are detrimental to the residual limb-socket fit, which can result in high pressure and shear in the soft tissues, causing discomfort or even deep tissue injury, further reducing mobility.

Dr Dickinson will develop accurate, dynamic models of residual limb-socket interactions in lower limb amputees to predict how the residual tissues deform and respond to loads arising from a range of activities. His models will incorporate the daily size variations and long-term adaptation of the stump, and the considerable influence of variability between patients.

His aim is to predict the response of the stump in order to plan more efficient surgical and prosthetic treatments that speed up and reduce the discomfort of rehabilitation. His research will enable the design and verification of more comfortable, better performing prostheses, for the benefit of healthcare providers and, ultimately, to improve the quality of life of lower limb amputees.

Turning data transmission around

Dr Martin PJ Lavery, University of Glasgow

The speed and capacity of communications networks have grown rapidly in recent years, allowing vast amounts of data to be exchanged at ever increasing speeds, especially over the internet. The introduction of optical fibres was the principal enabler for this exponential growth.

Unfortunately, optical fibres do not have unlimited capacity, and given the increase in data traffic, they are fast approaching their fundamental limits. This is caused by the limited width of these fibres, where ,much like water in a pipe, an increase in the width will result in greater throughput. However, such an increase in width presents a set of key technical challenges to recover the data transmitted along this larger optical fibre.

A little known property of light could be the key to bypassing these limitations and developing a higher capacity system. Dr Lavery is planning to use light’s orbital angular momentum (OAM), a property that can assume discrete, measurable values, to develop high capacity, secure communication networks. These values could form a new ‘alphabet’ allowing transmission of far more information than is possible today.

Dr Lavery’s research will develop the technology needed to turn light into an OAM alphabet and will focus on transmitting and receiving these signals both via open space (such as building to building data transmission) and via optical fibre.

Novel imaging techniques to visualise blood flow in the brain

Dr Thomas Okell, University of Oxford

Non-invasive imaging techniques that show the blood flow to the brain are valuable tools, enabling doctors to make accurate diagnoses and plan interventions. Ideally, to reduce risks to the patient to an absolute minimum, these imaging techniques should use the least possible amount of ionising radiation or contrast agents.

Arterial spin labelling is a type of magnetic resonance imaging that fulfils these requirements and can be used to produce detailed maps of the brain tissues infused by blood (perfusion), and also to perform angiography, which shows the flow of blood within arteries.

Current methods that use this technique for detailed angiography are time-consuming and perfusion information must be obtained in a separate scan. With constraints on clinical scan times it is often not possible to perform both perfusion imaging and angiography in the same session, leaving the specialist with incomplete information.

Dr Okell is working to resolve this issue and to allow both measurements to be performed simultaneously. Treating angiography and perfusion not as separate techniques but as different windows on a continuous process, Dr Okell will develop the way the measurements are performed and recorded to simultaneously produce detailed results for both perfusion and angiography in a fraction of the time normally required.

A language for computers of the future

Dr Antoniu Pop, University of Manchester

Computer processors based on single cores have run out of steam a decade ago, limiting the processing power that can be achieved by sequential applications. Conversely, the demand for processing power increases constantly, as computing devices permeate every aspect of our lives and more complex, demanding applications are developed.

To meet this demand for processing power, multiple cores are integrated in each processor, with numbers growing at an exponential rate and leading to "many-core" processors.

Current programming languages are ill-suited to exploit the vast amounts of parallelism delivered by many-core systems, thus representing a tremendous challenge for software engineers. There are also theoretical constraints on the maximum performance gained by running in parallel on multiple cores.

Dr Pop is addressing the programmability, performance and energy issues, from a software engineering perspective, to open the way to future many-core systems. He is creating a new programming language specifically designed to fully exploit the power of many-core processors and investigating new computation models and optimisations.


Notes for Editors

  1. The Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowships are designed to promote excellence in engineering. They provide support for high-quality engineers and encourage them to develop successful academic research careers.
  2. 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.

For more information please contact:

Giorgio De Faveri at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel: 020 7766 0655
E: Giorgio De Faveri