The winners of the prestigious 2018 Science Foundation Ireland Awards were revealed at the annual SFI Science Summit on Monday 12th of November, recognising leading Irish researchers contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Prof. John Boland, School of Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin and a former Director of the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) and AMBER, was awarded SFI Researcher of the Year. This award recognises the accomplishments of a Science Foundation Ireland funded researcher who has contributed significantly to the Irish research community in the year of the award and throughout their career achieving exceptional scientific research outputs combined with a clear demonstration of the ability to communicate their research. Prof. Bolands’ current research interests involve the electrical and mechanical properties of nanoscale materials, and the exploitation of nanoscale connectivity in device applications. Following his BSc degree from University College Dublin and PhD from the California Institute of Technology Prof. Boland came to Trinity College as an SFI Research Professor and has subsequently received three SFI Investigator awards. He is Ireland’s first Advanced ERC grant awardee in the Physical Sciences.

Commenting on his award, Prof Boland said “I am delighted to accept this award from Science Foundation Ireland. Being recognised as Researcher of the Year is no small accolade and I am deeply honoured to receive it. Alongside my own work on nanoscale materials there are many diverse research projects ongoing across Ireland, and it is wonderful to see representatives from those being recognised. I want to thank SFI for this award and would like to congratulate the other recipients on their achievements.”

Acknowledging the eleven award winners, four of whom are based at Trinity College, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Ms Heather Humphreys TD, said “I am pleased to see the outstanding work of the Irish research community acknowledged through these SFI Science Awards. The recipients are among Ireland’s top researchers and the awards recognise the contribution they are making in a number of areas including industry collaborations, entrepreneurship, communication and public engagement. I would like to congratulate each awardee on their tremendous achievements, their discoveries will bring economic growth and societal development in Ireland.”

Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, Professor Mark Ferguson, also congratulated the award winners, saying “Every year the Science Foundation Ireland Awards provide an opportunity to highlight some of the excellent impacts and achievements of our research community. I want to congratulate the winners on their dedication and the contribution they are making to Ireland’s economy and society. I am confident that their success will be a source of inspiration to their peers and, more importantly, to the next generation of researchers in Ireland. At Science Foundation Ireland we very pleased to see the superb quality of research that our funding enables, and are proud that Irish research continues to be impactful and world-leading.”

AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for materials science based at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has today announced a research collaboration with MagGrow, an Irish SME based in Dublin. The overall goal of the jointly funded project, with leading magnet scientist Prof. Michael Coey, is to investigate the physical basis for the magnetic effects attributed to the MagGrow spraying technology.

At the moment 70% of pesticide spray does not reach the target crop. MagGrow’s innovative sprayer technology gives better coverage than conventional crop spraying systems, resulting in increased coverage of the target plant, and reduced water usage. It reduces drift of the spray chemicals targeting them exactly where they are needed with benefits to the health of agricultural workers and soil. The MagGrow technology, which has been researched and developed over the last six years, uses permanent magnets to achieve these results. Prof. Coey and his colleagues will investigate under field and laboratory conditions the magnetic effects underpinning MagGrow technology, as it exists today, and the potential it offers to create new innovative solutions for agriculture, irrigation, and other industrial applications in the future.

The aim of this project is to investigate the physical basis for the magnetic effects of the MagGrow magnet-assisted agricultural sprayer technology, using both field and laboratory-based research. After initial characterisation of the effects of MagGrow technology in the field, a working rig, comprising representative components and associated magnets, of the MagGrow boom-based sprayer system will be set up at TCD. This will be used to investigate systematically the influence of the magnets on spray characteristics, droplet size distribution, and spray coverage, with a view to optimizing the magnetic and fluidic circuit designs in relation to drift, coverage and efficacy of chemical usage. This work will involve an interplay of experiment and finite-element computer modelling. The very detailed scientific information derived through this study will provide MagGrow with the foundational theory to optimise existing products and develop the technology for other applications.

Prof. Michael Coey, AMBER and School of Physics, Trinity College, said: “Our collaboration with MagGrow has the potential to improve the delivery of pesticides and other agricultural sprays. The expertise in magnetism of our research team in AMBER and the School of Physics is internationally recognized and we have excellent research facilities which can benefit this engagement. I am looking forward to working with MagGrow on this project, which we expect to shed light on the physical basis of the effects of rare earth magnets on crop spraying, a technology that is vital for feeding the planet.”

“This strategic collaboration builds on the work of our Research and Development teams in Ireland and the UK and will help us gain more of an understanding of the science around our technology, optimise our existing product set and help us identify new areas of product development,” said Gary Wickham, Chief Executive Officer, MagGrow. “The research team at MagGrow, led by Professor Anthony Furness, is delighted to be working with Professor Mike Coey and his team at Trinity on this collaboration. These industry-leading experts will help accelerate the optimisation and development of MagGrow products that are helping to fix large global issues right now, namely a scarcity of water, the waste associated with poor application of pesticides and the environmental damage that can result from spray run-off and spray drift.”

MagGrow, an Irish company, was set up in 2013, employs over 25 people and currently operates across four different regions; the USA, Canada, South Africa and Europe. MagGrow is a patented, proprietary technology for droplet formation that yields superior drift reduction of over 70% and spray coverage performance of up to 40% compared to conventional spraying. MagGrow has many other benefits to drift reduction and coverage such as significant reduction in water usage by up to 50%, extended spray windows, and reductions in labour.

The MagGrow system has no moving parts, is easy to install and maintain, and can be fitted to a new or existing crop sprayer. There is an increasing demand on food & water, and MagGrow’s technology is supporting a more sustainable approach to primary food production. While prompted by competitive demands and the global challenge of meeting the needs for future food production, MagGrow’s primary focus is on meeting customer needs, and satisfaction based on results.

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Researchers at BEACON Bioeconomy Research Centre, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded Research Centre led by University College Dublin and AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for materials science at Trinity College Dublin have discovered a blend of biodegradable plastic that completely degrades under typical home-composting conditions. Their research was published today in the prestigious American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Of the hundreds of millions of plastic bottles, films and cartons produced everyday in the world, it is estimated that fewer than 15% end up being recycled, with most destined for landfills or littering our environment. Ireland is not immune to this problem with more than 80% of Irish coastal areas and inland waterways polluted with plastic litter, causing issues for people and wildlife. Plastic waste ends up in our environment as a result of poor recycling options. One potential solution to this problem is the introduction of biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics do exist and offer new waste prevention and management options which has the potential to fight against litter and environmental damage but until now no one had studied the conditions under which biodegradable plastics decompose.

The research was a collaboration between Professor Kevin O’Connor, BEACON and UCD’s School of Biomolecular & Biomedical Science, Dr Ramesh Babu AMBER Investigator, and European collaborators on EU funded projects (SYNPOL and P4SB). The collaborative team studied 15 different biodegradable plastics and mixtures of these plastics to see which had the most potential to biodegrade across a range of different environments – including standard home composting and industrial composting facilities where current brown bin material are taken. The research team tested blends of biodegradable plastics because often plastic packaging is made of a blend of plastics. They found that blends of biodegradable plastics can create new possibilities for managing plastic waste. Polylactic acid (PLA) is one of the well adopted biodegradable plastics on the market, but it requires high temperatures for breakdown and is not home-compostable. But surprisingly, a blend of PLA and polycaprolactone (PCL) degraded completely under typical home-composting conditions.

Professor Kevin O’Connor, BEACON Bioeconomy Research Centre and UCD’s School of Biomolecular & Biomedical Science, said: “Imagine putting your waste plastic packaging into a household composting bin that breaks down the plastic and produces compost for your garden or into your brown bin so waste collection companies are able to mix plastic with unavoidable food waste and produce biogas to run their fleet or power your home, that’s the future this study suggests.

Dr Ramesh Babu, AMBER and TCD’s School of Physics, said: “Going forward we will see massive shift in use of biodegradable polymers and our research opens up new and exciting possibilities that biodegradable plastics offer to society. We have shown for the first time that you can blend plastics together to make them more biodegradable but still keeping the strength and performance of the plastic. This opens up huge opportunities to create novel sustainable plastics that perform in multiple positive ways for society.

Dr Tanja Narancic, UCD’s School of Biomolecular & Biomedical Science and BEACON, a co-author on the publication said “Apart from providing opportunities to return carbon to soil as compost and to create clean energy (biogas), biodegradable plastic can be managed with other organic waste, rather than separated, making management easier.”

This research establishes new possibilities for waste management because if such biodegradable plastics were introduced as packaging and collected in the standard household brown bin this disposal treatment would result in their safe biodegradation and production of useful large scale by-products such as compost which can be used to grow plants, or biogas which can be used directly as fuel or upgraded to natural gas-quality biomethane, a renewable energy.

However, Professor O Connor warns that the study also found that “only two of the 15 biodegradable plastics tested, polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) and thermoplastic starch (TPS), broke down completely under standard soil and water conditions. Therefore, biodegradable plastics are not a panacea for plastic pollution and post-consumer biodegradable plastic must be managed carefully to avoid pollution and bring benefit to society.”

The paper entitled “Biodegradable plastic blends create new possibilities for end of life management but they are not a panacea for plastic pollution” is available online:

AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for materials science based at Trinity College Dublin has today announced a research collaboration with DePuy Ireland Unlimited Company and Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc. The overall goal of TRANSITION, the five-year project funded under Science Foundation Ireland’s Spokes programme, is to develop a new class of 3D printed biological implants that will regenerate, rather than replace, diseased joints.

This project has the potential to transform how we treat degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis, which at present affects around 915,000 people in Ireland and is thought to affect 10% of the world’s population over the age of 602. Science Foundation Ireland has provided 35% of the funding, with the remainder provided by DePuy Ireland Unlimited Company and Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc.

Orthopaedic medicine involves treating conditions that affect the bones, soft tissue and joints. 3D printing has the potential to transform treatments in orthopaedic medicine and the orthopaedic device industry, enabling the development of personalised implants and accelerating the supply chain of device companies. TRANSITION aims to develop a hybrid device consisting of a titanium core (providing mechanical integrity) overlaid by a layer of functional tissue (engineered bone and articular cartilage) which will be particularly suited to hip and knee implants. In working towards this aim the project team will strive to advance the underpinning science and technology of metal, polymer and biological 3D printing as well as surface treatments and functional coatings. These advances will have direct benefits for improving existing implant technologies in parallel to the end goal. A key goal is to have a subset of products ready for regulatory submission and clinical studies by the end of the research programme.

The announcement was welcomed by Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, TD, who stated, “The TRANSITION collaboration is a step forward in the development of next generation medical devices. The combination of biologics and technology in medicine is an exciting field and I am delighted to see the SFI Research Centre AMBER leading the way for Ireland in this transformative sector. Government is focused on supporting an environment that facilitates collaboration between industry and academia, bringing to bear the expertise and infrastructure within Ireland’s higher education institutions in the pursuit of significant advancement in global healthcare.”

Prof Michael Morris, AMBER Director said, “TRANSITION will build on the combined expertise of both AMBER Investigators and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies in manufacturing, surface science, biomaterials, tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting to develop new classes of medical devices. The Spokes programme will leverage key infrastructure in the two new laboratories established by AMBER in Ireland: the new 3D bioprinting lab being established and funded by the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and Trinity, and our new AR-Lab (Additive Research) laboratory.”

Prof Mark Ferguson, Director General, Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland commented, “Science Foundation Ireland welcomes this new AMBER collaboration with the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies. Having recently invested in the development of the Additive Research laboratory at AMBER, I am delighted to see that this state-of-the-art facility is already attracting investment and collaboration from industry. Science Foundation Ireland is pleased to fund this world class research, which will hopefully lead to next generation orthopaedic implants that can positively impact the lives of millions of people.”

Prof Danny Kelly, AMBER’s lead Principal Investigator on the project said, “Realising the ambitious goal of a new hybrid device to replace diseased joints will require addressing existing challenges in the 3D printing of metals, biodegradable polymers, bioinks and cells, and subsequently integrating the printing processes of these diverse material sets to develop hybrid metal-biological devices capable of restoring joint function. In doing so, this programme of research will transform the production of metallic orthopaedic devices used in hip and knee arthroplasty and has the potential to transform how we treat degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis.”

“This strategic collaboration builds on the work of our Innovation Centre in Cork (Ireland) and will help identify healthcare solutions that will ultimately enable us to advance care for patients through transformative technologies,” said Euan Thomson, Head of Research and Development, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies. “Our collaboration with these industry-leading experts will allow our teams in Ireland and across the globe to further our extensive research into 3D printing for therapeutic use, not only in the orthopaedics space, but across our entire Johnson & Johnson portfolio.”

Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, is a serious disease of the joints affecting nearly 10% of the population worldwide. At present the treatment option for end-stage OA is limited to surgical replacement of the diseased joint with a metal and polymer prosthesis. Although the outcomes of such operations are generally excellent, revision surgery is not uncommon, especially for younger, more active patients where due to age and lifestyle their initial implant is likely to require replacement. Given that the number of total hip arthroplasties performed annually is predicted to double over the next 25 years, innovative new approaches are necessary.

Science Foundation Ireland’s Spokes programme enables the addition of new industrial and academic partners and projects to an SFI Research Centre. TRANSITION will enable the employment of seven postdoctoral researchers and ten PhD students. It involves academics from Trinity (Prof Danny Kelly [lead], Prof Mick Morris, Prof David Hoey, Prof Conor Buckley, Prof Garret O’Donnell, Dr Rocco Lupoi, Dr David Trimble), RCSI (Prof Fergal O’Brien), DCU (Prof Myles Turner) and UCD (Dr Eoin O’Cearbhaill, and Prof Pieter Bramaa).