University of Sheffield scientist wins major environmental award

A scientist from the University of Sheffield has received a prestigious national award for his ground-breaking work on a satellite that will monitor climate change by weighing the Earth's forests.

Professor Shaun Quegan

Professor Shaun Quegan, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Sheffield, received the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Economic Impact Award for his work on the European Space Agency’s BIOMASS mission, which has paved the way for a £192 million contract for Airbus UK to build the innovative satellite.

Professor Quegan was one of a number of academics celebrated for the real-world impact of their work at the ceremony, at the Natural History Museum on 3 December 2018.

Using radically new technology, the BIOMASS satellite, currently under construction in the UK, will create 3D maps of the world's forests. It will measure the weight of the wood held within them and the height of the trees, creating an accurate map of the terrain they are standing on.

Research by the team, led by Professor Quegan, was instrumental in the selection of BIOMASS for the European Space Agency's seventh Earth Explorer satellite. A crucial factor in the mission was identification of the perfect 'Goldilocks' wavelength to measure the biomass of trees while avoiding disruption of the data caused by an atmospheric layer called the ionosphere. Overcoming this stumbling block was instrumental in the selection of the mission.

This paved the way for the UK Airbus Defence and Space to successfully bid for the £192 million engineering contract, which will see the satellite launched and ready for action in 2022.

Dr Phil Heads, NERC’s Director of Research and Innovation, who represented NERC on the Impact Awards 2018 judging panel, said: "The finalists in this category were examples of exceptional academic leadership, in partnership with industry, helping to bring about skilled jobs and economic stimulus to important sectors of the UK economy.

"Professor Shaun Quegan was chosen as the winner in recognition of the significance of his leadership in securing the BIOMASS mission, paving the way for this major investment in UK space technology and enabling game-changing developments in monitoring the world's forests in light of global climate change."

Professor Quegan, said: "It's great that tackling a central issue in climate change science has led to high-value jobs and technical advances for industry, which is what this award is about. It's also a tribute to the outstanding team of European scientists I'm privileged to work with through the European Space Agency, and the long-term support I've had from the University of Sheffield and NERC."

Congratulating Professor Quegan on his award, Professor Nick Monk, Head of the School of Mathematics at the University of Sheffield, said: "This is wonderful news. Professor Shaun Quegan's work is groundbreaking and for the first time will provide us with vital information about the structure of the world's forests to help us monitor climate change in the future. Research from the University of Sheffield is making a hugely positive impact on real world issues."

Shortlisted and judged by independent panels of esteemed academic, industry and government figures, the NERC Impact Awards celebrate NERC-funded scientists, as individuals or teams, whose work has had a significant, wide-reaching impact on the economy or society in the UK or internationally.

To further the impacts of their research, the winner of each category receives £10,000 and the runner-up £5,000. The category winner judged to have had the biggest impact is the overall winner, receiving an additional £30,000 funding.

Professor Duncan Wingham, NERC Executive Chair, said: "We know that understanding our changing planet is fundamental to our future wellbeing and prosperity. From lab to real life, the inspiring impacts recognised tonight demonstrate the huge benefits that environmental science can bring to our society and economy."

This year's judges included former UK Environment Secretary Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, and BBC presenter and Professor of Public Engagement in Science Professor Alice Roberts.

Around 150 guests from the research community, industry and government attended the ceremony.

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.