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EPSRC Reference: EP/K038656/1
Title: Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering (CNIE): Addressing Challenges in Sustainability and Scalable Manufacturing
Principal Investigator: Titchener-Hooker, Professor N
Other Investigators:
Coppens, Professor M Catlow, Professor R Penn, Professor A
Ward, Professor JM Pomiankowski, Professor A Treleaven, Professor P
Hanna, Dr SP Sankar, Professor G Brett, Professor D
Gavriilidis, Professor A McMillan, Professor PF Bracewell, Professor DG
Miodownik, Professor M Lettieri, Professor P
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Aedas AFC Energy Antecy
AstraZeneca UK Limited ExxonMobil GE (General Electric Company)
GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK) Harris Corporation Johnson Matthey
Laing O'Rourke Ltd MATGAS Maxeler Technologies Ltd
Particulate Solid Research Inc. (PSRI) Quantachrome Sabic Americas, Inc.
Shell Synfuels China Technology Co. Ltd
Department: Chemical Engineering
Organisation: UCL
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 29 November 2013 Ends: 28 November 2019 Value (£): 4,980,773
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Biochemical engineering Building Ops & Management
Fuel Cell Technologies Water Engineering
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing Construction
Environment Energy
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
06 Mar 2013 Frontier Engineering Interview Panel Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Evolution over the eons has made Nature a treasure trove of clever solutions to sustainability, resilience, and ways to efficiently utilize scarce resources. The Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering will draw lessons from nature to engineer innovative solutions to our grand challenges in energy, water, materials, health, and living space.

Rather than imitating nature out of context or succumbing to superficial analogies, research at the Centre will take a decidedly scientific approach to uncover fundamental mechanisms underlying desirable traits, and apply these mechanisms to design and synthesise artificial systems that hereby borrow the traits of the natural model. The Centre will initially focus on three key mechanisms, as they are so prevalent in nature, amenable to practical implementation, and are expected to have transformational impact on urgent issues in sustainability and scalable manufacturing. These mechanisms are: (T1) "Hierarchical Transport Networks": the way nature bridges microscopic to macroscopic length scales in order to preserve the intricate microscopic or cellular function throughout (as in trees, lungs and the circulatory system); (T2) "Force Balancing": the balanced use of fundamental forces, e.g., electrostatic attraction/repulsion and geometrical confinement in microscopic spaces (as in protein channels in cell membranes, which trump artificial membranes in selective, high-permeation separation performance); and (T3) "Dynamic Self-Organisation": the creation of robust, adaptive and self-healing communities thanks to collective cooperation and emergence of complex structures out of much simpler individual components (as in bacterial communities and in biochemical cycles).

Such nature-inspired, rather than narrowly biomimetic approach, allows us to marry advanced manufacturing capabilities and access to non-physiological conditions, with nature's versatile mechanisms that have been remarkably little employed in a rational, bespoke manner. High-performance computing and experimentation now allow us to unravel fundamental mechanisms, from the atomic to the macroscopic, in an unprecedented way, providing the required information to transcend empiricism, and guide practical realisations of nature-inspired designs.

In first instance, three examples will be developed to validate each of the aforementioned natural mechanisms, and simultaneously apply them to problems of immediate relevance that tie in to the Grand Challenges in energy, water, materials and scalable manufacturing. These are: (1) robust, high-performance fuel cells with greatly reduced amount of precious catalyst, by using a lung-inspired architecture; (2) membranes for water desalination inspired by the mechanism of biological cell membranes; (3) high-performance functional materials, resp. architectural design (cities, buildings), informed by agent-based modelling on bacteria-inspired, resp. human communities, to identify roads to robust, adaptive complex systems.

To meet these ambitious goals, the Centre assembles an interdisciplinary team of experts, from chemical and biochemical engineering, to computer science, architecture, materials, chemistry and genetics. The Centre researchers collaborate with, and seek advice from industrial partners from a wide range of industries, which accelerates practical implementation. The Centre has an open, outward looking mentality, inviting broader collaboration beyond the core at UCL. It will devote significant resources to explore the use of the validated nature-inspired mechanisms to other applications, and extend investigation to other natural mechanisms that may inform solutions to problems in sustainability and scalable manufacturing.
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