Royal Academy of Engineering awards £10m to four new Chairs in Emerging Technologies

Four innovative engineering academics who are global leaders in their fields have each been awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies. They will share a total of £10 million in funding over ten years to lead on developing emerging technologies with high potential to deliver economic and social benefits to the UK.

From atomically thin semiconductors for more energy efficient electronics, to harnessing the power of the sun in the upcycling of biomass and plastic waste into sustainable chemicals, their research encompasses a variety of technological advances with the potential to deliver wide-ranging benefits.

Funded by the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Academy’s Chair in Emerging Technologies scheme aims to identify global research visionaries and provide them with long-term support. Each £2,500,000 award covers employment and research costs, enabling each researcher to focus on advancing their technology to application in a strategic manner over a period of up to 10 years.

Since 2017, the Chair in Emerging Technologies programme has awarded over £100 million to Chairs in 16 universities located across the UK. There are 42 Chairs in Emerging Technologies currently active, eight of whom are women (19%).

Dr Andrew Clark, Executive Director, Programmes, at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “I am excited to announce this latest round of Chairs in Emerging Technology. The mid-term reviews of the previous rounds of Chairs are providing encouraging evidence that long-term funding of this nature helps to bring the groundbreaking and influential ideas of visionary engineers to fruition. I look forward to seeing the impacts of these four exceptionally talented individuals. We do not anticipate running a further call for Chairs in Emerging Technologies in the next financial year but we look forward to the upcoming launch of our Green Future Fellowships and sharing plans for other long-term funding opportunities.”

The four Chairs and their research projects are:

Professor Manish Chhowalla FREng, University of Cambridge

Atomically thin semiconductors: An emerging platform for ultra-low power electronics

Professor Chhowalla aims to engineer ultra-low-power electronics based on wafer scale manufacture of atomically thin (or 2D) transition metal dichalcogenide semiconductors. The atomically thin nature of the 2D semiconductors makes them ideal for energy efficient electronics. To reap their benefits, complementary metal oxide semiconductor processes will be developed for their integration into ultra-low power devices such as tunnel and ferroelectric field effect transistors.

Professor Nicholas Lane, University of Cambridge

DANTE: Decentralized AI Open Technology

Professor Lane, and his team, aim to fundamentally change the way the world approaches machine learning (ML) and enable AI to be far more collaborative and open than is possible today. Project DANTE seeks to invent, popularise and open-source scalable decentralised forms of ML that will be capable of (1) allowing the safe and privacy-preserving usage of previously untapped sources of distributed data, and (2) the efficient and secure sharing of computing resources towards widening participation in ML – even at extreme levels of complexity. These methods will support companies and organizations of all sizes to work together more easily towards the next generation of AI breakthroughs, and also accelerate AI being adopted within domains where data is inherently sensitive, such as in healthcare. An underlying mission of DANTE is also to facilitate advanced AI technology remaining available for adoption in the public sphere, for example in hospitals, public policy, and energy and transit infrastructure.

Professor Erwin Reisner, University of Cambridge

Solar-powered upcycling of biomass and plastic waste to sustainable chemicals

Professor Reisner will develop an emerging technology called solar reforming that creates valuable sustainable fuels and chemicals from biomass and plastic waste. This solar-powered technology uses only waste, water and air as ingredients, and the sun powers a catalyst to produce green hydrogen fuel and platform chemicals to decarbonise the transport and chemical sectors. This project aims to drive the lab-to-market transition of solar reforming and, ultimately, to establish a commercial solar chemistry technology for a circular economy.

Professor John C. Travers, Heriot Watt University

Practical high-brightness and ultrafast far-ultraviolet, X-ray and electron beams

Professor John Travers will develop sources of attosecond (a unit of time 10-18 of a second) ultraviolet, X-ray and electron beams. The underlying technology of these sources is optical soliton dynamics in gas and plasma filled hollow waveguides. This tabletop technology will provide the ability to manipulate and probe matter with unprecedented temporal and spatial resolution and will be exploited for scientific research and advanced industrial applications. Professor Travers aims to further miniaturise these sources into practical and compact devices for wider use, opening opportunities for innovation in materials processing, healthcare, semiconductor fabrication, and beyond.