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New Horizons for adventurous new engineering research

12 October 2022

A UK Government initiative will fund highly speculative but potentially high-return research at the School of Engineering.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has allocated £15 million of funding to 70 adventurous new projects in the mathematical and physical sciences through the New Horizons initiative.

Some ambitious ideas from the School of Engineering have been given backing by the funding.

Teaching robots to manipulate unpredictable materials

Sand, dough, snow and cement. These viscous and granular media are abundant in our daily lives. We can manipulate them in all kinds of ways, for example, construction workers transport sand using machinery. Key industries also rely on the control of such substances, including agriculture, disaster rescue, and space and underwater exploration.

Automating the manipulation process would increase its productivity, efficiency, quality and consistency, but this is a big challenge in robotic control. Conventional robot motion planning assumes that objects can only move or rotate but not deform. In the case of highly unpredictable viscous and granular materials, like sand, this is not true.

Research from Dr Ze Ji aims to unlock an efficient, physically plausible, and safe framework for autonomous robots so they can learn to manipulate this media. His research introduces a novel technique called differentiable physics. The numerical simulation hopes to greatly accelerate the simulation process by allowing optimal and physically plausible actions to be computed.

If this research is successful it will support robots to work side by side with humans, offering their strength to manipulate different materials while presenting no danger.

Storing energy in the soil

A plentiful natural resource is being called on by researchers at the School of Engineering to help solve the problem of renewable energy storage. Dr Michael Harbottle and his team plan to create "soil batteries" to store solar power underground.

The subject matter of the research is still conceptual, but the idea involves running a current between buried electrodes. This stimulates certain bacteria in the soil. Just as sunlight provides the energy for plants to make sugar from carbon dioxide and water, so the electrical energy lets the bacteria convert carbon dioxide into a chemical called acetate. This acetate becomes in effect a chemical store of energy, and, when the energy is needed, a different circuit is switched on, giving different bacteria the energy to break down the acetate. This process frees electrons, which flow through the circuit, providing electricity on demand.

Their calculations suggest that a single cell would create about 0.5 volts. But the researchers believe it may be possible to put hundreds of the cells together in series to store more energy and produce a higher voltage. Crucially, the setup works without requiring the mining of lithium and other valuable metals that are used in today’s batteries.

There are clear uses if the team can make it work, particularly for off-grid applications such as sensors, simple lighting systems and communications infrastructure.

The adventurous thinking displayed in these projects underlines the ingenuity and imagination of our researchers, taking novel approaches to tackle major challenges. We hope this work will catalyse breakthroughs and technologies that deliver benefits and prosperity for all of society. We are excited to share the updates of their research over the coming months.

The full list of funded projects will be available on Grants on the Web.

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