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Four LU researchers receive ERC starting grants

Elias Kristensson (Photo: Kennet Ruona)
Elias Kristensson (Photo: Kennet Ruona)

Why do proton collisions resemble the early universe? Will we see X-ray imaging of the connections between neurons in brain tissue one day? Can lung tissue be 3D bioprinted to help patients in need of a lung transplant? And what can you film in in less than 0.000000000001 seconds?

Four promising researchers at Lund University have been awarded a prestigious grant from the European Research Council, providing each person with up to 1.5 million euros in funding over the next five years.

Jesper Wallentin, an Associate Professor at the Department of Physics was awarded the grant to examine whether nanowires can be used as high-resolution X-ray detectors.

Nanowires are tiny crystals with a diameter of less than one-tenth of a micrometer – compare that to a strand of hair that has a diameter of 50 micrometres.

“We have some initial results that show that we can actually get an electric current from nanowires that are exposed to X-rays. The fact that we can measure a signal in a single nanowire is fascinating”, says Jesper Wallentin.

If real detectors for performing nanoscale X-ray microscopy are developed in the future, perhaps we will be able to make X-ray imaging of the connections between neurons in brain tissue.

For now, the grant will finance one PhD student, one postdoc position and an X-ray lab, among other things.

Darcy Wagner, a researcher at the Department for Experimental Medical Science, was awarded the grant to research 3D bioprinting – when cells are printed - for lung transplantations. 

There are over 65 million patients with chronic lung diseases worldwide. For many of these patients, lung transplantation is the only option, and new ways of generating lung tissue are desperately needed.

“This is a virtually unexplored research area for the lung. The funds will allow me to bring unique expertise together and to recruit and train the next generation of scientists for lung tissue engineering”, says Darcy Wagner.

The idea is that scaffolds could be generated from synthetic or biologically-derived materials, seeded with cells, and grown in a bioreactor prior to transplantation. Ideally, scaffolds would be seeded with cells derived from the transplant recipient, thus limiting the need for long-term immunosuppression, where complications are known to occur.

Elias Kristensson, a researcher at the Department of Physics, develops laser imaging techniques for extremely fast filming.

His research has created a method that enables the filming of events that occur in less than one picosecond (0.000000000001 s). To put that into perspective, light does not even travel half a millimeter in the same time period.

“Because of the ERC grant, not only will I be able to establish a research group, but we will have access to the specialised laser equipment with extremely short laser pulses that our experiments require. Now, we can push the boundaries for ultrafast filming by capturing and monitoring events never caught on film before”, says Elias Kristensson.

Korinna Zapp, a researcher at the Department of Astronomy and Theoretical Physics, recreates the conditions that existed for only a few millionths of a second after the Big Bang. 

Large Hadron Collider LHC at CERN can create a head-on collision, at almost the speed of light, between heavy lead nuclei containing 208 protons and neutrons. The density in these collisions is so high that protons and neutrons 'melt'. This creates a quark-gluon plasma - resembling our universe very shortly after the Big Bang. In this way the properties of the quark-gluon plasma can be studied in the laboratory. The most important discoveries have been that the quark-gluon plasma behaves like a liquid, and that it attenuates very fast particles passing through it. 

“It was a major surprise when scientists discovered that collisions of the small protons in many aspects closely resemble collisions of the large lead nuclei”, explains Korinna Zapp.

The density in proton-proton collisions is so much lower that it is believed to be impossible to create a quark-gluon plasma. Still, proton-proton collisions show signs of formation of liquid and hot matter, but do not attenuate fast particles.

“The question I want to attempt to answer is: do proton-proton collisions create a miniature quark-gluon plasma, or has the data been misinterpreted? Or perhaps nature has something in stock for us that we haven't thought of yet”, concludes Korinna Zapp.