Experimental funding for bold new engineering projects

Can we use ancient paper techniques to create new materials and ultramodern technology that can help us discover nature's own antibiotics? Two new projects at the Department of Engineering, Aarhus University, which aim to accomplish exactly this, are among the projects being funded in a new programme under the Villum Fonden foundation.

2018.09.13 | Jesper Bruun

Assistant professor at the Department of Engineering Marcelo Dias uses the ancient Japanese paper cut technique kirigami to create mechanical metamaterials with extraordinary properties. Photo: Lars Kruse.

A total of 53 bold projects within natural science and engineering throughout Denmark have just been supported with a total of DKK 100 million in Villum Fonden's new programme called the Villum Experiment. Eight of the projects, with funding of DKK 15 million in total, are anchored at Aarhus University, where both modern and ancient techniques are the focus of researchers at the Department of Engineering.

In the context of these projects, researchers aim to create new super materials via old Japanese paper-cutting traditions and to discover new drugs in nature’s own medicine cabinet.

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With his project, Assistant Professor Thomas Tørring, who researches in microbial biosynthesis, aims to use image recognition and computer algorithms to identify the microorganisms most likely producing the antibiotics we will be using in the future. He sees a huge potential in discovering the natural antibiotics yet to be discovered by humans: 

"We desperately need new antibiotics, but to find them in nature is like finding a needle in a haystack. In this project, we’ll be building an incubation chamber that uses image recognition and automatic learning to identify the most promising bacterial colonies," he explains.

The project will have far-reaching potential if the researchers succeed in getting a computer to recognise the right bacteria. Because, even though we’ve known about antibiotics for many years, pharmaceutical companies throughout the world are still struggling to find new antibiotic-producing bacterial strains, and we still only know a fraction of the natural products that are encoded in microbial genomes. 

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Assistant Professor Marcelo Dias’ project is looking into something completely different.

His project is about addressing issues within mechanical metamaterials. Requirements for the mechanical properties of materials must go hand in hand with sustainability and economic criteria. By designing constructions with certain geometrical properties, you can create some extraordinary, controllable material properties.

To achieve this, Marcelo Dias applies the ancient Japanese paper-cutting technique, kirigami:

"Engineers have used origami for decades, but this technique's ‘little brother’, kirigami, is becoming more and more popular and has already shown great potential in engineering. One of the objectives of this project is to develop a strategically founded proof-of-concept involving systematically categorising which kirigami patterns can bridge between theory and application. Such an approach has so far not been explored," says Marcelo Dias.

As opposed to origami, kirigami is a technique to obtain different material properties by cutting, for example paper, in different ways. The technology is familiar from pop-up books but can also be applied to create materials with amazing geometric and functional properties. Therefore, kirigami is top-of-mind in research into functional materials

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This is just the second time that the Villum Experiment has granted research funding. All projects that receive funding are selected from among more than 400 applications, all of which have been through an anonymous selection process, where 15 international reviewers have assessed the research idea without being able to consider the researchers' CVs and academic qualifications.

"Villum Fonden aims to help create space for radical and innovative research, which has the potential to fundamentally alter our approach to key topics. The bold idea, that you might not dare to mention aloud, may challenge acclaimed research even though it does not fit into the conventional peer-review funding system. Through anonymous selection and high risk funding we can contribute by testing the wild and offbeat ideas," says Thomas Bjørnholm, Executive Chief Scientific Officer at the Villum Fonden.

The researchers behind the 53 experiments include professors as well as postdocs, and they represent 19 different nationalities. In addition to the Aarhus University, they come from the University of Copenhagen, the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark, Aalborg University, Roskilde University, GEUS and the IT University. 


Contact

Assistant professor Thomas Tørring
Mail: thomast@eng.au.dk
Phone: +45 61718186

Assistant professor Marcelo Dias
Mail: madias@eng.au.dk
Phone: +45 93508876

Department of Engineering