Three New Horizons grants awarded to Sheffield Engineering academics for transformative research projects

Researchers from across several departments in the Faculty have secured a share of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) latest £15million investment in transformative projects.

Dana in lab
Dr Dana Damian from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering

Dr Jagroop Pandhal from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering will look at reducing the environmental footprint of steelmaking by creating a new method of capturing the carbon dioxide emitted.

While steelmaking is critical to our lives - from the cars we drive to the buildings we live in - its environmental footprint is huge; each blast furnace has the same carbon footprint of around 350,000 people and it is thought to consume 8% of the world’s energy.

This new project will use micro algae, inspired by a mega-algal bloom, which followed wildfires in Australia.

These algae would be ‘atomised’ into aerosols and tested to determine whether they can be used to capture carbon without the prohibitive costs currently associated with other processes of carbon capture.

“I’m really excited about getting this ambitious project started. It's not just about a new approach to capture industrial CO2 emissions, it’s about biologically activating aerosols, an idea that has far reaching possibilities in environmental remediation and resource capture.” Dr Pandhal said.

A second project, which is led by Dr Colin Smith from the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, working in collaboration with Dr James McGregor from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, alongside an academic in the Department of Chemistry, is to look into the development of more sustainable soil stabilisation technologies, with a need to adapt to climate change, flood risk and sea-level rise.

The project aims to use naturally sourced biopolymers such as chitin, which can be derived from crustaceans, insects or mushrooms, as an additive to strengthen soils, while addressing challenges around water resistance and biodegradation.

“This funding allows us to develop a genuinely interdisciplinary approach involving civil engineers, chemical engineers and chemists to tackle a problem of significant environmental concern,” Dr McGregor said.

“We are looking at major challenges in infrastructure and development but doing so by designing solutions from the molecular level upwards. This approach has the potential to deliver transformative change in the sector, in line with the objectives of the New Horizons funding programme.”

A third project, led by Dr Dana Damian from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, working in collaboration with Dr Shuhei Miyashita from the same department and Dr Kyra Campbell from the School of Biosciences, will develop research to create self-regulating robots. 

Researchers are aiming to develop artificial homeostasis for robotics, a fundamental capability in living organisms that enables them to keep their conditions, such as body temperature, constant or within a small range, that means they can stay healthy and function.

The aim of the project is to develop machines that can sustain themselves in hazardous and unpredictable conditions, so they can prevent faults themselves, restore their own internal equilibrium in case of fault and therefore continue operating.

It will provide the first fundamental building blocks of a new level of physical AI to enhance machines' resilience, adaptability and decision making in most uncertain tasks.

The projects are among 77 to receive awards from EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), through the New Horizons initiative. The investment builds on the more than 100 transformative New Horizons projects funded by EPSRC in 2020.

The New Horizons programme has trialled a streamlined application process to reduce bureaucracy and deliver a faster process compared to current standard funding routes. EPSRC will now conduct further evaluation on the first two rounds of New Horizons and make an announcement on a further round in due course.

EPSRC Executive Chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, said: “The adventurous thinking displayed in these new projects underlines the ingenuity and imagination of our research base, taking novel approaches to tackle major challenges.

“The discovery-led science we support is at the heart of the research and innovation ecosystem. Engineering and physical sciences underpins and advances research across all disciplines, catalysing the breakthroughs and technologies that deliver benefits and prosperity for all of society.”

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