Left to right: Manish Chhowalla, Nic Lane, Erwin Reisner

Three Cambridge researchers – Professors Manish Chhowalla, Nic Lane and Erwin Reisner – have each been awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies, to develop 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 by upcycling 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 for 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. Of the four Chairs awarded in this round, three were awarded to Cambridge researchers.

Professor Manish Chhowalla FREng, from the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, is developing ultra-low-power electronics based on wafer-scale manufacture of atomically thin (or 2D) 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 integration into ultra-low power devices.

Professor Nic Lane and his team at the Department of Computer Science and Technology, are working to make the development of AI more democratic by focusing on AI methods that are less centralised and more collaborative, and offer better privacy protection.

Their project, nicknamed DANTE, aims to encourage wider and more active participation across society in the development and adoption of AI techniques.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is evolving towards a situation where only a handful of the largest companies in the world can participate,” said Lane. “Given the importance of this technology to society this trajectory must be changed. We aim to invent, popularise and commercialise core new scientific breakthroughs that will enable AI technology in the future to be far more collaborative, distributed and open than it is today.”

The project will focus on developing decentralised forms of AI that facilitate the collaborative study, invention, development and deployment of machine learning products and methods, primarily between collections of companies and organisations. An underlying mission of DANTE is 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, from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, is developing a technology, called solar reforming, that creates 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. A recent review in Nature Reviews Chemistry gives an overview of plans for the technology.

“The generous long-term support provided by the Royal Academy of Engineering will be the critical driver for our ambitions to engineer, scale and ultimately commercialise our solar chemical technology,” said Reisner. “The timing for this support is perfect, as my team has recently demonstrated several prototypes for upcycling biomass and plastic waste using sunlight, and we have excellent momentum to grasp the opportunities arising from developing these new technologies. I also hope to use this Chair to leverage further support to establish a circular chemistry centre in Cambridge to tackle our biggest sustainability challenges.”

“I am excited to announce this latest round of Chairs in Emerging Technology,” said Dr Andrew Clark, Executive Director, Programmes, at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “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.”

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