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Lund researchers awarded prestigious ERC grants

Daniel Conley and Anders Rantzer
Daniel Conley and Anders Rantzer

Two researchers at Lund University in Sweden have been awarded almost EUR 5 million in total from the European Research Council. One of the research projects focuses on the early growth of diatoms in the ocean 250 million years ago, and the subsequent global effects of the algae growth. The other grant will go towards research on the automatic control necessary to create fossil-free cities.

Daniel Conley, professor of biogeochemistry at Lund University, has been awarded the grant for a five-year project on diatoms in the ocean. Diatoms have a significant impact on the global biogeochemical cycles of carbon, silicon dioxide and other nutrients that regulate ocean productivity and, ultimately, the planet’s climate.  Every day these small unicellular organisms absorb significant amounts of carbon from the air, more than double the amount released by the human use of fossil fuels.

In this new research project, Daniel Conley will investigate how the early evolution of diatoms approximately 250 million years ago affected the global cycles of both carbon and silicon, as well as other nutrients.

“We will contribute new insights into how the spread of diatoms had a fundamental impact on the ocean’s environment”, says Daniel Conley.

Until now, the research community has not investigated this chain of events due to a lack of discoveries of diatom fossils in older bedrock. Instead, the focus has been on the more common fossil impressions of diatoms from the past 66 million years. However, molecular clocks indicate a much earlier development of diatoms, as early as after the large-scale mass extinction that affected most life on the planet approximately 250 million years ago.

“Now we are going to search for evidence of the early evolution of diatoms and also calculate the overall impact they had on global cycles”, says Daniel Conley.

Conley’s research on global cycles is now being rewarded for the second time in a short period. Last autumn, he was awarded just over SEK 34 million from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation for further work on global silicon cycles.

Anders Rantzer, professor of automatic control at the Faculty of Engineering, is the second of two Lund researchers awarded the prestigious ERC grant.

We are surrounded by technical products and systems that rely on automatic control, but we don’t notice it as long as it works. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden technology’. Simply put, automatic control makes sure that processes behave in the way they are intended.

Given the need to reduce climate impact, automatic control is even more relevant, since there are many elements that must work together, says Anders Rantzer:

“It can involve anything from district heating and electricity networks to wind farms and traffic flow. Modern infrastructure is characterised by network interconnections. A sustainable society requires more flexibility and better methods of optimisation and operation than those used today”, he says.

This is specifically what Anders Rantzer plans to develop with the grant he has received from the European Research Council. Essentially, the project is about theories, algorithms and mathematics that enable flexible solutions, despite the increasing complexity that comes with many users, need for efficiency and individual demands. Energy and resources can be saved by adapting to customer needs and predictions, for example using weather forecasts.

New techniques for machine learning are contributing to research and implementation. These methods, in turn, are the result of a drastic increase in data capacity, among other things. The research is theoretical; however, it will partly be carried out in collaboration with industry that is studying new concepts for district heating networks. 

The funds for both new research projects at Lund University come from the European Research Council’s most prestigious grants, the ERC Advanced Grants. There is fierce competition for these grants from researchers all around the world and they are awarded to a small number of applicants conducting world-class research. Altogether, there are six Swedish researchers who have been awarded funding in this year’s round of grants.

The European Research Council’s information on the funded projects can be found on their website.