Frontier Engineering: Progression Grant in Nature-Inspired Engineering

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Chemical Engineering


Evolution over the eons has made nature a treasure trove of clever solutions to enable scalability and resilience, with sustainable ways to utilise scarce resources. Many fundamental mechanisms observed in natural systems could also deliver desirable properties in artificial systems. Launched in 2013, as one of five EPSRC Frontier Engineering Centres, the UCL Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering (CNIE) draws lessons from nature to engineer innovative solutions to our grand challenges in energy, water, materials, health, and living space. CNIE's vision is to be a world-leading research centre, unique in its thematic approach and academic breadth, combining state-of-the-art facilities with interdisciplinary expertise, delivering transformative impact across a range of sectors.

The CNIE is organised around three Themes (TX), each corresponding to a fundamental category of natural mechanisms. Each is known to deliver desired properties in nature, and is chosen because of its potential to be transformative to many practical problems. The Hierarchical Transport Networks Theme (T1) concerns the way nature bridges micro- to macroscopic length scales through optimal networks as found, e.g., in trees and lungs. The Force Balancing Theme (T2) draws on processes that occur at various scales in nature, such as the balancing of mechanical forces in bones. The Dynamic Self-Organisation Theme (T3) relates to temporal structuring and emergence of robust, self-healing and adaptive organisation, such as in dunes and cells. To date, EPSRC support has enabled: validation of the Centre's unique nature-inspired approach through Flagship Projects, within one or more Themes, applied to industrial challenges in the domains of energy, water, materials, health and living space; extension of the NIE approach beyond chemical engineering to a range of academic disciplines that includes biochemical engineering, computer science, and architecture, as well as expansion of the Centre's national and international network, through its highly successful "Inspiration Grants" scheme; and, translation of the CNIE's findings into practice, through knowledge exchange and entrepreneurship, supported by an extensive network of industrial partners. Core EPSRC support has enabled research at a level of risk not typically supported by standard research funding routes. It has also enabled substantial leverage of additional research and translation funding from other sources, including EPSRC, H2020 and industry.

The proposed EPSRC Progression Grant will extend underpinning investment in the CNIE for a further two years, supporting, together with continued investment from UCL, CNIE's transition to long-term financial sustainability. Specifically, it will enable: exploration and validation of the NIE approach within a fourth Theme in Ecosystems, Control & Modularity (T4); further expansion of the CNIE's approach to new application areas in built environment & design and biomedical & healthcare engineering, and development of (T3) in process intensification and energy; retention of core research staff, empowering and supporting them towards independent research careers; and continued translation of the CNIE's work into practice through industrial engagement and entrepreneurship. Collective, synergistic behaviour is pervasive in biology, from bacterial communities to termites. The new Theme (T4) will explore implementation of mechanisms that induce such behaviour, to propose nature-inspired control mechanisms, in applications ranging from catalysis to process intensification, robotics and the built environment. A new Flagship Project will explore translation of core mechanisms to process intensification and manufacturing, while a further series of Inspiration Grants will expand the interface between chemical process systems engineering, computer science, genetics and biochemical engineering to build a strong, validated foundation for applications in other areas.

Planned Impact

The Progression Grant will support the continued delivery of impact of the CNIE's research on industry and practice, the training of future researchers and development of future research leaders, as well as engagement with general public though outreach activities.

Industry will remain a key beneficiary of the work of the CNIE. All research within the Centre addresses key industrial challenges, identified in dialogue with a wide network of major industrial partners. Industrial engagement in the Centre has been steadily growing since its launch in 2013. Currently, the Centre collaborates with over 40 industrial partners who provide informal advice on research opportunities, serve on the CNIE Advisory Board, host researchers, and provide funding and resources for additional projects. Partners come from a variety of sectors, including energy, pharma, chemicals, healthcare, architecture and specialty materials. Contacts are nurtured via company site visits with CNIE representation, visits by industrial representatives to the CNIE and, via our extended academic network, through involvement in the Inspiration Grants scheme. Engagement will continue to be led by the PI, supported by the Management Team and a departmental Strategic Alliance Manager. Industrial engagement will also be supported by UCL Business (UCLB) who will advise on protection and exploitation of intellectual property. We expect, within the next phase of the CNIE, to see further IP generated in the areas of nature-inspired electrochemical systems, water management, and biomedical materials.

Another key impact will be on the researchers - Research Fellows and PhD students - working within the Centre. We place a great deal of emphasis on the professional and personal development, as well as the career progression, of all our researchers and academics. Research Fellows supported by the Progression Grant will be given significant autonomy to set their own research agenda, explore complementary research opportunities, and co-supervise post-graduate (MEng, MSc and PhD) students. Each will have access to an individual travel budget enabling them to attend key meetings and conferences, and to travel to and work in partner laboratories. Each will be provided by support and mentorship to apply for grant and fellowship funding. Training and support will also be available for researchers pursuing entrepreneurial activities and developing spin-out companies.

Finally, nature-inspired engineering is a concept that has proven to capture the imagination of researchers, students, and the public. To ensure that the CNIE is accessible in the broadest terms, a number of outreach activities are planned. CNIE researchers will help organise a "Summer Challenge" on "Engineering Solutions from Nature" for high school students, whose parents have not gone to university, including many from underrepresented groups. The Centre will also work closely with the award-winning charity In2scienceUK/TeachFirst, which empowers students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their potential and progress to STEM and research careers. Theme 3 Lead, Professor Mark Miodownik, will also continue to deliver key messages about STEM, and, where appropriate, about Nature-Inspired Engineering, via radio, print media and television.


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