ERC grants for top TU researchers

The gap between academic research and commercial applications can sometimes be difficult to bridge. The European Research Council's (ERC) Proof of Concept grant purports to do just this, providing grantees eighteen months and €150 thousand to explore what the ERC calls the 'innovation potential' of their research.

The third round of results were announced 22 January and among the two of the 135 recipients are researchers from TU Delft; Professor Ruud van Ommen and Professor Andrea Neto.

To be eligible for a Proof of Concept grant, applicants must have previously received ERC funding. In 2011 Neto obtained a Starting Grant to research high frequency antennas and Terahertz (THz) radiation, with which he started the THz Sensing group, housed in the Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science faculty. Van Ommen who is working with researchers in the Applied Sciences faculty's Product and Process Engineering group, also received an ERC Starting Grant in 2011 to develop research on coating nanoparticles using Atomic Layer Deposition.

When asked how they plan to show the commercial value of their earlier research, Van Ommen explained, "What we would like to do with the generic technology we developed is to make better catalysts, especially for biomass conversion." Biomass energy is a renewable energy source which Van Ommen considers very important for the future, however the catalysts currently used in biomass conversion rely on extremely expensive noble metals. The Proof of Concept grant will be used to investigate ways the group's nanocoating technology can be used reduce this cost, either through more precisely nanostructuring the metals, reducing the amount needed, or replacing these noble metals with a cheaper alternative. If a catalyst compatible with bio-based chemicals is developed Van Ommen believes they will have a commercially interesting final product.

The THz Sensing group will use the proof of concept funding to further develop one of the three concepts established with Neto‘s original grant; Artificial Electric Layers. Neto explained that these are particularly useful for semi-conductor technology, improving efficiency. As such, the group saw no reason these Artificial Electric Layers shouldn’t be used throughout the semi-conductor industry in the future. He added that they can already make these layers - the grant will be used to help them show that they can be made available at a commercial level, on demand. "We know these things can be made, we would like them to be extremely repeatable and manufactured on a large scale, with security as to the quality of what comes out." The most likely application for this technology is in automotive radars.

Both researchers consider funding efforts to connect academic research with its‘ commercial applications fundamental. "When you do things that are technologically very difficult, if it's only us who understand their power, it’s not very useful to society," explained Neto. Van Ommen also emphasised that for this type of funding to be effective, "it should have enough vision behind it and not just be troubleshooting for short term needs of industry".