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Oxford engineers to lead two of 77 new projects supported by £15 million investment from the EPSRC

The projects, part of the New Horizons initiative, focus on high risk, speculative engineering or information and communication technologies research with a potentially transformative impact

A laser engineered liquid crystal device being switched by an applied voltage

In one of the two projects, new optical devices will be made using liquid crystal materials, which currently find widespread application in displays. The research team will use high resolution laser processing to engineer structures inside the liquid crystal layer for new device architectures and explore novel switching schemes. The images show a laser engineered liquid crystal device being switched by an applied voltage.

Professor Martin Booth and Dr Patrick Salter are leading a project looking at a new 3D technology that will provide the prospect of powerful, reprogrammable optical processors with wide applicability. The researchers will be developing a novel optical engine to address these reconfigurable 3D devices, with an eye toward industrial scalability.

Dr Salter says, "Optical computation has always played a role alongside more conventional forms of computation. While it will not replace the ubiquity of electronic methods, it is playing an ever-increasing role where electronics cannot perform. For reasons of speed, efficiency, compactness or reliance upon the physical properties of light, there are applications where photonic computation is the most promising candidate, including both classical and quantum-enabled methods. The story about optical processing replacing electronic computation is an attractive one. The reality however is that suitable technology does not yet exist to make these methods feasible in anything but a highly contrived laboratory setting.”

Professor Harrison Steel, with Co-Investigator Professor Antonis Papachristodoulou, will research a biotechnological engineering technique that employs processes similar to natural selection (e.g. selective enrichment of ‘fit’ individuals) to create new biotechnologies that can address major challenges in biomedicine, manufacturing, agriculture, and beyond.

He explains, “This technique, called Directed Evolution, can be difficult to apply due to the challenge of coupling a designer's goals to an experimentally selectable ‘fitness’. Addressing this challenge, our New Horizons award will explore a new paradigm for directed evolution, in which selection is implemented by a control system built around a custom robotic microscope. This system will be able to observe and select individual bacteria out of very large populations, using cutting edge tools and algorithms from control, machine learning, and robotics. Leveraging advances in each of these fields will greatly expand our ability to engineer with evolution, and open the door to developing Engineered Biological solutions to some of the 21st most pressing global challenges.”

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said of the New Horizons projects: “The adventurous thinking displayed in these new projects underlines the ingenuity and imagination of our research base, taking novel approaches to tackle major challenges.”

The projects are supported by a £15 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through the New Horizons initiative. UKRI press release.