Two Imperial academics win significant European funding

An illustration of the holographic principle. Credit: Florian Aigner /TU Wien
An illustration of the holographic principle. Credit: Florian Aigner /TU Wien

Two Imperial physicists have won significant European funding to pursue their pioneering ideas.

The academics - both from the Department of Physics - were awarded prestigious grants from the European Research Council as part of the Horizon Europe funding programme.

Dr Shai Chester won a Starting Grant to help build a research team to investigate quantum gravity and Dr Heather Graven won a Proof of Concept Grant to develop a prototype carbon sampler that builds on previous work funded by the ERC.

Unravelling the mysteries of quantum gravity

Dr Shai Chester, Department of Physics, has won an ERC Starting Grant worth 1.5million over five years to help unravel the mysteries of quantum gravity.

When materials change state, such as water turning to ice, this is known as a phase transition. When it happens at zero temperature, it is known as a quantum phases transition, as the change is driven by quantum fluctuations.

Dr Chester’s project will use powerful new methods to solve theories which describe these quantum phase transitions in new materials being studied in labs.

The theories are also used to describe quantum gravity - the big unanswered question in theoretical physics - via the holographic principle, which says that quantum gravity in negatively curved spacetime can be described by certain non-gravitational theories in one less dimension.

Dr Chester explains: "Our goal is to make predictions about these phase transitions that will guide experiments on them, and also help to unravel mysteries of quantum gravity, such as how black holes form when gravitons interact.

"The project will harness powerful new methods to solve theories with conformal symmetry, which roughly speaking are theories which look the same no matter how much you zoom in or out."

ERC Starting Grants recognise talented early-career scientists who show potential to become research leaders and have a scientific track record showing great promise. The grants are designed to help young researchers launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas.

Dr Chester added: "This support will allow me to build a big group with many postdocs and PhDs, and further enhance the theoretical physics group here at Imperial, continuing the legacy of its founder, Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam."

Dr Chester has also been awarded a University Research Fellowship (URF) from the Royal Society.

Monitoring carbon emissions

Dr Heather Graven, Department of Physics, has won 150,000 to build a prototype carbon sampler.

Measuring the radiocarbon content of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and particulates, is important to better understand emissions from human activities and natural systems.

Currently there is no off-the-shelf product that can be used for easy, automated gaseous sampling for high precision measurements of radiocarbon, and analysis is limited to expert researchers with access to laboratories.

By developing a prototype carbon sampler - called Atmospheric Carbon Emissions Sampler (ACES) - the kit can be sent directly to sampling sites, including fixed sites or mobile platforms such as aircraft or ships, where samples can be obtained for analysis.

The project will initially focus on sampling carbon dioxide, but future development could enable sampling of other gases and particulates. This opens access to non-experts with potential applications for companies, industries, researchers, governments and local authorities.

Dr Graven explained: "The ACES sampler can be used by non-experts and will help a wide range of users measure radiocarbon content of gaseous samples, quantify fossil fuel emissions and understand processes related to human activities and natural systems."

Dr Graven, who previously won an ERC Starting Grant, will collaborate on the project with researchers and colleagues from the University of Bristol, University of Heidelberg in Germany, and Imperial’s Enterprise Division and its cleantech initiative Undaunted.

Dr Graven said: "I am excited to expand on the work and success of my ERC Starting Grant. The aim of this project is to develop the technology to make it available to more users, leading to more measurements that can be done for research and other applications. I love making new measurements and I’m curious to learn about commercialisation and work with Imperial’s Enterprise team and Undaunted as part of this project."

Horizon Europe at Imperial

Open international collaboration is essential to Imperial’s success: our academics work across 192 countries and European partners are critical to this: about 60% of Imperial’s research papers with a US collaborator also have a European co-author, as do 72% with Canada and 81% with Brazil. Participation in the EU research framework programmes is a springboard to productive partnerships across the world - strengthening the influence and impact of UK research. Imperial was the 8 most successful higher education institution in Horizon 2020 and the programme has funded many collaborations, supporting our researchers to work with colleagues across Europe on vital issues: ranging from new diagnostic tools for childhood disease , an AIDS vaccine and combatting wildfires to quantum, data and climate technologies.

The UK is now fully associated to Horizon Europe and Imperial research can participate in and lead projects across the programme. Just recently, Imperial was named as part of a consortium looking to equip healthcare providers with resources to detect, diagnose and prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Imperial academics have also recently kicked off other Horizon Europe projects on revolutionary optimisation tools to drastically reduce emissions in the design of aero engines, research into exposure to endocrine disruptors and the effects on human health, and helping to better understand cloud-aerosol interactions to more accurately predict extreme weather events and support planning for climate adaption and mitigation.

To find out more about opportunities in Horizon Europe, please get in touch with the Research Office and the Enterprise Research Impact Management Office.