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Research rising to meet Global Challenges


Newcastle University is to lead a £5.5 million research project investigating new ways to provide cheaper, cleaner water.

Working with Northumbrian Water Ltd, the unique team of engineers, computer scientists, biologists and mathematicians will explore the potential of microorganisms to provide clean water for everyone.

The Newcastle grant is part of a £47 million investment in innovative engineering research announced today by the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, at the first Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) in London.

Funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) the projects are designed to tackle some of the key global challenges faced by society today such as climate change, healthcare and access to clean water.

Explaining the Newcastle University-led project, research lead Tom Curtis, Professor of Environmental Engineering, says: “Biological resources, especially microbiological resources, are the last unexploited frontier in engineering and key to the emerging field of engineering biology.

“But engineers are trapped between the narrow certainties of microbes in the laboratory which they can manipulate but not deploy and the raw power of the open microbial world where there are thousands of species we can deploy but not easily or predictably engineer.

“In particular, biological engineers have struggled to create new designs efficiently because each new idea must be trialled in large scale experiments that can have huge costs and uncertain outcomes.

“The team’s vision is to work our way from the single cell through to a system containing billions upon billions of microbes, exploiting naturally occurring or even novel synthetic organisms to make clean water more cheaply.”

The project will also investigate other ways to exploit the microbes such as in the treatment of waste, to control corrosion and fouling in the oil and shipping industry and to produce new materials.

The Newcastle University and Northumbrian Water research is one of five Frontier Engineering projects receiving a share of £25 million.

Newcastle University is also a partner in a £5.9 million project “mapping the underworld” to understand the interconnectivity of our cities’ infrastructures.

Mr Willetts said: “Over the last two centuries engineering innovations have transformed lives, but we still face global challenges like tackling climate change, improving healthcare and meeting basic needs, like access to clean water. This significant investment recognises the vital role that the UK research base can have in providing solutions to these challenges.”

EPSRC’s Chief Executive, Professor David Delpy added: “The issues being explored at the Global Grand Challenges Summit highlight how important it is for the UK to fund engineering research in these areas and work with colleagues worldwide to develop both the people and projects to meet the demands of the 21st century.”

The Global Grand Challenges Summit has been organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering and is proudly supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and other partners.

published on: 12 March 2013