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Bernal Project brings real-world science to University of Limerick

Launched in late 2013, the Bernal Project is an initiative of the University of Limerick which aims to make a significant contribution to Ireland’s national research capability.

Named after influential 20th century Irish scientist, John Desmond Bernal, a pioneer of X-ray crystallography who was regarded as the founding father of molecular biology, the project aims to enhance research excellence in the strategically important fields of pharmaceutical science and engineering; energy and sustainable environment; modern and biomedical materials and engineering.

The €52 million project involves the recruitment of 10 world-leading professors, a start-up seed fund to support their teaching and research activity and the construction of a new advanced research building on campus. Funding has come through the University of Limerick Foundation which has committed to providing €36 million primarily from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the project’s main sponsor to date with a commitment of €26.3 million. The balance has come from State funding and university funds. The building was completed in August and the first research teams are in situ.

To date, six leading international researchers have been appointed as Bernal Chairs: Professor Mike Zaworotko for crystal engineering, (one of the world’s top 20 chemists); Professor Ursel Bangert, for microscopy and imaging; Professor Bartek Glowackifor energy; Professor Harry Ven den Akker, for fluid mechanics; Professor Gavin Walkerfor pharmaceutical powder engineering; and Professor Jacques Huyghe, for biomedical engineering.

“The Bernal Project has given us a great opportunity to hire high-profile researchers in select areas who can help develop our expertise here in the university,” says Professor Edmond Magner, dean of the faculty of science and engineering at UL.

“What we want to do is emphasise the importance of having a deep knowledge base in fundamental science and engineering and how it can be applied it to real work problems. For example, Michael Zaworotko is the first professor of crystal engineering in the world.”

Magner describes crystallography as a bit of a black art. “Lots of processes use crystallisation, in the pharmaceutical and food industries in particular,” he says. “You need to be able to refine the process to produce only one crystalline form every time. That’s one of big challenges for these industries, to be able to grow the crystals in the same form every time. This also has uses in areas such as hydrogen storage and carbon sequestration. The research is investigating the types of materials which can be used in carbon sequestration and absorb CO2 in much more efficient ways.”

The point is not to create new areas of expertise for the university but rather to build on areas where it is already established. “We have very strong expertise in fluids,” says Magner.

“How they behave, how to control the flow and so on. This is quite important for a lot of different applications in areas such as pharma, food processing, and the dairy sector. We hired Harry Ven Den Akker to add to this expertise. With Michael Zaworotko working in crystal engineering we are bringing it to a new level – broadening and deepening the capability of the university.”

Materials science is another area where UL already excels. “We have extremely good facilities and expertise in this area. We carry out research into the materials in medical devices such as stents or artificial hip joints and we have really good capability in terms of the structures of the materials and their properties.”

The appointment of Ursel Bangert as Professor of Microscopy will assist in the further development of this important area. Prof Bangert’s team has been given a boost through the installation of an electron microscope at a total cost of €6 million which is only one of four of its kind in the world.

“It will give us extraordinary precision in measuring features of materials at the sub-atomic level. It goes back to the need to understand what’s going on at a fundamental level and then applying that to solve real world problems.”

These are just a few examples of the contribution being made by the newly appointed Bernal chairs.

This complements the work which researchers in different areas of the university have been carrying out over many years. Among these is Dr Tofail Syed of UL’s Materials and Surface Science Institute who, among other things, is working with Cook Medical on the development of alloys for medical devices.

“We developed a completely new metallic alloy, nickel titanium, for use in minimally invasive medical devices such as guidewires for stents and catheters which are used when a patient is under X-ray,” he explains. “It’s absolutely critical for the surgeon to be able to see the device when they are using it but the problem is that the alloys used can’t be seen well under X-ray.”

One solution developed by a medical devices firm was to add platinum to the alloy and while this worked it was enormously expensive as the alloy was 25 per cent platinum.

“Our challenge was to find an alternative which was patentable,” says Syed. “We started work on the problem in 2005 and designed the alloy in 2006. What we found was that the problem hadn’t been approached from a fundamental science point of view. We asked what makes the alloy visible. We brought our understanding of the problem and the physics involved and found a different solution. What we suggested was using a segment of the periodic table known as rare earth metals or lanthanides in the alloy. We took a few of them and made the alloy, did the proof of concept and tested it.”

Syed and his team showed that the radio-opacity, or visibility under X-rays, of these elements was equal to that of platinum despite being less than half as dense. They then had to make the alloy in a workable form.

Syed points out that there was no infrastructure in Ireland for metal processing at the time but fortunately UL had just managed to purchase a new spark plasma sintering machine which allowed the team to produce it in-house. “We would not have been able to develop this solution without the government support to acquire that machine,” he notes.

The patent for the new alloy was granted in December of last year and Cook Medical is now actively seeking manufacturing partners to produce it on their behalf. Successes like this along with the work of the Bernal chairs will allow the university build its expertise in certain key areas as well as to establish an international reputation for excellence in them.

“This won’t be a short-term process,” says Magner. “It will take a long time to achieve the profile we want but the end result will be that we will have a greater number of students and postgraduates become world-class researchers. Our focus will remain on the type of research that can fundamentally change the way industry does things. We will develop fundamental scientific and engineering understanding that can be applied to real world problems.”

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