Shaping the future: our impact in 2017
This year, our colleagues from the University of Birmingham’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences have made important contributions to making the world a better place.
1. Making the world a safer place, both on and offline
The number of train journeys made every year in the UK has more than doubled since the late 1990s, putting unprecedented pressure on our rail infrastructure. We’re working in partnership with industry and academia to develop solutions to this and other challenges facing the industry. We're part of a consortium which secured £92 million to establish a world-leading centre of railway excellence. Our new UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems will deliver improvements in railway control; defend our railways from cyber-attacks; and introduce next generation monitoring of infrastructure. In November, we were awarded a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for our work making railways around the world safer and more efficient.
With the NHS and other public and private institutions facing unprecedented cyber-attacks in 2017, we continued our efforts to improve online safety. We were re-accredited as an NCSC-EPSRC Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research (ACE-CSR) for another five years. The award is a reflection of the consistently high-quality research our Security and Privacy group does, such as developing a solution to a longstanding privacy problem found in messaging apps.
2. Aiding recovery from illness and injury
We are improving the diagnosis, treatment and recovery from disease. Our researchers have developed tiny gold ‘nanoprobes’, no bigger than 100 nanometres, which are expected to lead to improvements in the early diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. We have also discovered a new way of using nanotechnology for tissue regeneration which has the potential to help repair bone, teeth and cartilage.
The colon is susceptible to a range of illnesses, many of them debilitating, from ulcerative colitis to bowel cancer. Treating them can be difficult due to our lack of knowledge about how drugs are delivered to the large intestine. Our researchers have developed an artificial colon which accurately mimics how drugs work inside the large intestine. This is expected to lead to improved treatment options for patients.
Providing patients with the right support after treatment improves their psychological and physical wellbeing. We’re pioneering the use of Virtual Reality to help intensive care patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham recover from major surgery. Through progressive programmes and technology, patients have the opportunity to explore the world without leaving their hospital rooms. If the trial is successful, it is hoped other hospitals across the UK might start to incorporate virtual reality into their rehabilitation programmes.
3.Unlocking the mysteries of the Universe
Image credit: NSF_LIGO Sonoma State University
Our astrophysicists made significant contributions to the gravitational wave science which made global headlines in 2017, from building hardware for the LIGO detection instrument through to the sophisticated data analysis tools which help scientists understand the detections.
We joined scientists from around the world in celebrating the news that scientists had detected gravitational waves - ripples in space and time - in addition to light from the spectacular collision of two neutron stars. The news followed the announcement earlier that month that the Nobel Prize in physics 2017 had been awarded to a trio of gravitational wave science pioneers.
Gravitational wave science is helping unlock the mysteries of the universe, including helping prove Einstein’s famous theory of relativity and that colliding neutron stars are the likely source of gold and platinum.
4. Developing solutions to global challenges
The UK has 4.9 million tonnes of legacy nuclear waste. Cleaning this up is the largest and most complex environmental remediation task in Europe. We led a consortium of eight universities which secured £42 million of new investment to fund the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR). The centre is developing state-of-the-art robotics, sensing and AI technologies to address the major societal challenges posed by nuclear waste.
Food waste is a major problem, both in the UK and globally. In India, as much as 40% of some harvested crops have to be discarded before reaching any consumer because of a lack of a ‘cold chain’ to keep food fresh. The Birmingham Energy Institute presented clear proposals for transforming India’s agricultural system through sustainable ‘clean cold’ refrigeration technology, which will help India develop whilst decarbonising their economy. In 2018, we will host the world’s first international congress dedicated to clean cold, which will see academic experts join leaders from industry and government to map a global response to ever-increasing demands for cooling.
5. Inspirational leadership
Achieving gender equality remains a major challenge for science and we continued our efforts to ensure science is accessible to all. The University of Birmingham hosted the International Conference on Women in Physics. United Nations Messenger for Peace, Malala Yousafzai, enlisted the help of female physicists from around the globe to spread her message of ‘education for all’.
In November, Professor David Charlton was recognised for his leadership in particle physics and was awarded the Institute of Physics’ Richard Glazebrook Medal and Prize.
Professor Charlton played a significant role in the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in 2012; the discovery confirmed the last unverified part of the Standard Model of particle physics, which scientists have worked on for decades.
We also continued to expand global access to Birmingham’s expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Mathematics is central to our new dual degree partnership with Jinan University, while Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering will be amongst the programmes taught at our new campus in Dubai in 2018.
Find out more
Find out more about our work by visiting the #ThisMatters page.