Oxford University projects on robotics, advanced materials, and energy storage have received a multi-million-pound boost thanks to an £85m national investment in technologies to drive UK growth.
Three areas – 'robotics and autonomous systems', 'advanced materials' and 'grid-scale energy storage' – were identified in the pre-budget statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as part of the government's 'eight great technologies', and are to receive £85m for capital equipment via EPSRC.
Oxford made successful bids for funding in each of the three areas, securing £6.5m for two Oxford projects and a further £1.2m for a project in which Oxford is a partner.
One of the grants supports work on mobile robotics, a project led by Professor Paul Newman and Dr Ingmar Posner in the Department of Engineering Science that includes the development of self-driving cars. In February this year the team showed a Nissan Leaf 'driving itself' for stretches of a route – a milestone on the way to creating everyday vehicles that can offer 'auto drive' for parts of a journey.
Ground-based mobile robotics research also has applications well beyond personal transport, and the work the grant will support has potential impact in space exploration, construction, logistics, security and defence, inspection, warehouse and factory automation, and agriculture. The grant will provide the vehicles, robots, snake-arms, tools and computers needed to drive Oxford's robotics agenda forward into new arenas.
A second grant supports the development of metallic alloys that can withstand extreme environments – for use in aerospace, energy generation, transport, defence and range of other fields. Many engineering materials must be multifunctional, able to withstand combinations of harsh conditions – such as in energy generation, where corrosive conditions can co-exist with high temperatures for extended periods of time, or in defence applications, where materials must be blast-resistant but not too heavy.
The project, run jointly by Professors Roger Reed, Patrick Grant, Chris Grovenor and Alan Cocks in the Departments of Materials and Engineering Science, will establish new research infrastructure that will speed up the lengthy process from the discovery of a new metallic alloy to the point where it can be used in industry. New modelling, manufacturing and testing laboratories will be established on the Begbroke Science Park, supported by technicians and engineers provided by the University.
The third Oxford project receiving support is in collaboration with Imperial College London and other institutions, and aims to tackle the challenge of storing energy on a large scale, at the level of the national grid. Energy storage is essential for the greater use of low-carbon energy from renewable sources: sources like wind power and solar power have peaks and troughs, so unless the energy generated during high winds or strong sun can be captured and stored for later use, they cannot be relied upon for a predictable supply of electricity. The grant will allow the purchase of very specialised equipment for a possible solution to the challenge, with the Oxford contribution led by Professor Patrick Grant in the Department of Materials and Dr David Howey in Engineering Science.
The total value of the three projects receiving support is over £11m. In addition to the £7.7m awarded today, funding has come from industry and from the University's own research funding, including Oxford's EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account.
Professor David Delpy, EPSRC chief executive, said: 'The successful bids will build capability in areas that are vital for the country and where exciting research is already being carried out: developing new ways to store energy, creating new materials for manufacturing and other industries, and increasing our understanding of how autonomous systems communicate, learn and work with humans.'
David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: 'For Britain to get ahead in the global race we have to back emerging technologies and ensure our universities have the latest equipment. This capital investment will help scientists make new discoveries and take their research through to commercial success. It will drive growth and support the government’s industrial strategy.'