The brain, traffic and nano-circuits: e-Science takes on major challenges

Swindon 07 July 2006Research into three major scientific and technological challenges is to receive a major boost from the application of e-Science and Grid computing. The challenges are understanding the brain; mapping the detailed environmental impact of traffic; and designing future generation nano-scale electronic circuits. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and other funding partners have awarded more than GBP 13 million to three, 3-4 year projects covering each of these topics in the third round of the EPSRC's e-Science programme.


e-Science is opening up to scientific scrutiny challenging problems that had seemed out of reach, or even impossible to tackle. By giving researchers access from their own desktops to resources held on widely-dispersed computers, it is enabling research that would have been impossible using one computer alone, even a supercomputer.

The first project that will pioneer new research using e-Science is understanding the brain. The GBP 4,5 million CARMEN project, led by Professor Colin Ingram at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, will harness e-Science techniques to enable neuroscientists, working on different aspects of brain function at different labs, to share and integrate their data and models.

Neuroscientists use many different techniques to unravel the processes within individual neurons - brain or nerve cells - or the interactions between networks of neurons that lead to thoughts and behaviour. The techniques are time-consuming, difficult and expensive, but researchers rarely record their data or models so that they can be used by other labs or research groups. CARMEN will help maximise the output from investment in brain science by enabling neuroscientists to archive their data so that they can be retrieved and analysed in new ways by others.

The second project addresses the environmental impact of traffic. Traffic makes a significant contribution to air pollution in inner cities. Governments devise policies and traffic management schemes to minimise the impact of air pollution. More detailed knowledge of how traffic-generated pollution behaves in the urban environment could greatly enhance these policies and schemes. Factors such as street and building design, vehicle braking and accelerating patterns, individual traveller decisions and local weather conditions affect the concentration of pollutants that individuals are exposed to as they move around.

The GBP 3,5 million Pervasive Mobile Environmental Sensor Grids (PMESG) project, led by Professor John Polak at Imperial College London, is jointly funded by the EPSRC and the Department for Transport. It will develop e-Science and Grid technologies to enable data from a network of mobile sensors to be gathered and interpreted. The e-Science technologies developed will be generic enough for use in other applications of mobile sensor networks, for example, climate or weather mapping.

The third project involves the design of nano-circuits. The GBP 5,2 million NanoCMOS project, led by Professor Asen Asenov at Glasgow University, will develop e-Science methodology and tools to allow designers of tiny electronic circuits to meet the very demanding challenges created by future nano-scale electronic components.

These components will be so small that their behaviour will be highly variable, governed by individual atoms rather than the average behaviour of large collections of atoms. The NanoCMOS project will build a Grid infrastructure and e-Science tools to enable circuit designers to share models that simulate nano-component behaviour and explore the implications for circuit design. It will help UK circuit designers to remain internationally competitive and overcome the disadvantages caused by the lack of an indigenous UK semiconductor industry.

The UK e-Science Programme is a co-ordinated initiative involving all the Research Councils and the Department of Trade and Industry with funding of GBP 230 million from 2001-2006. It has also leveraged industrial investment of GBP 30 million. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council manages the e-Science Core Programme, which is developing generic technologies, on behalf of all the Research Councils.

Leslie Versweyveld

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