Four Lund University researchers awarded ERC starting grants

Ultrasound that detects rare cells in a drop of blood. Business models for a circular economy. Laser technology that can film at almost the speed of light, and another that can map insects from several kilometres away. Four promising researchers from Lund University have been awarded starting grants from the European Research Council (ERC) amounting to a total of approximately seven million euros, or SEK 75 million.

– Publicerad den 13 September 2019

Mikkel Brygdegaard, Nancy Bocken, Per Augustsson och Andreas Ehn.

Per Augustsson, a researcher in biomedical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, conducts research on ultrasound, which has shown to be suitable to detect and isolate different kinds of cells and particles in the blood.

“Ultrasound separates the different blood components. Red blood cells, which are heavy in iron, choose one direction. The different white blood cells react differently depending on the density and volume”, he says.

The separation takes place inside a small glass microchip, where the blood is led into microfluidic channels. In the long term, it is hoped that the technology could be used, for example, at healthcare centres that could avoid sending samples away to central hospital laboratories, and instead get test results onsite.

“However, all of this lies well into the future. As part of the project, we will try to detect and separate different kinds of blood cells. It is a big challenge as certain cell types are very rare and one vial of blood contains tens of billions of cells. Subsequently, we will map the acoustic properties of the cells”, says Per Augustsson. He has been awarded two million euros over the next five years.

Andreas Ehn, researcher in combustion physics at the Faculty of Engineering, hopes to contribute with new knowledge of how so-called non-thermal plasma, or cold plasma, forms and interacts with its surroundings. However, the challenge is that this is extremely fast and unpredictable. He is therefore going to develop laser technologies can film what is happening with incredibly fast resolution. They are so fast they can even follow things moving as fast as light itself.

“In this sort of plasma the electron energy is much higher than the gas temperature. Heating of the gas is therefore minimal and, instead, it is possible to use the energy to create new substances more effectively”, he says.

For example, cold plasma is found in fluorescent light tubes and is in itself nothing new. However, there is hope for new areas of application, which Andreas Ehn is going to study. These may include neutralising poisonous substances, creating fuel from carbon dioxide and methane or making combustion more environmentally friendly.

However, the biggest task in the project is to develop the laser methods. With their previous work on the world’s fastest camera, Ehn and his colleague Elias Kristensson demonstrated that the approach works, in principle. Andreas Ehn has been awarded approximately 2 million euros over the next five years.

Nancy Bocken, professor at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, is going to utilise her ERC grant to develop new ways to create business models that support businesses in their transitions to a circular economy.

As part of the project, called Circular X, Bocken and her colleagues will produce new knowledge on how businesses in different countries can experiment with business models that can be used in the transition to a circular economy.

“One example of a transition to sustainable business models is that businesses are shifting away from selling products to renting them out. Or that businesses offer life-long warranties to lengthen the life expectancy of products. In the long term, such business models will help businesses to fight climate change”, says Nancy Bocken.

The grant will fund a research team with one doctoral student and three postdoc positions starting in early 2020. The research will be conducted in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, China and USA. Nancy Bocken has been awarded approximately 1.5 million euros over the next five years.

Mikkel Brydegaard, researcher in combustion physics at the Faculty of Engineering, is developing a laser tool that provides completely new insights into the lives of insects. This includes which species can be found in a particular area, how many there are and what their daily rhythms and lifecycles look like.

According to Mikkel Brydegaard, it is necessary to understand ecology to manage insects, regardless of whether you want more, such as pollinators, or fewer, such as pests.

“For example, we have seen how the behaviour of mosquitoes in Africa is extremely regular across a 24-hour period. They can visit the same place in the landscape at the exact same minute every day. Knowledge like this paves the way for entirely new ideas for preventing malaria”, he says.

With the ERC grant, Brydegaard will develop the tool by using insect wings as a ‘laser mirror’ to determine the wing thickness on a nanometre scale. He and his colleagues have already previously demonstrated that wing thickness differs in closely related mosquito species.

The goal is to generate backward moving laser beams from flying insects. The detection range of small insects is expected to drastically improve by several kilometres. In this way, he hopes to be able to identify significantly more of the thousands of insects that fly around in the landscape. In order to distinguish between different species of mosquito, entomologists currently have to sequence the genomes of the mosquitos.

The technology is also expected to provide quantitative measures on the biodiversity of species by, for example, comparing the monocultures of farming with garden environments. Mikkel Brydegaard has been awarded approximately 1.5 million euros over the next five years.

A total of 408 European researchers have been awarded European Research Council starting grants. The investment, which is part of the EU research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, has a total budget of 603 million euros.

Read more here:  erc.europa.eu/news/StG-recipients-2019