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Brussels, 2 February 2007

Nominees for the Descartes Prize for Research

Category 1 - Basic Sciences:

Developing friendly and useful carbon nanotubes fro industry and medical applications


Participating Countries: Italy, France, Germany, UK, Spain

FULCARS is an interdisciplinary Consortium that has developed innovative technologies in order to make carbon nanotubes (CNT), one of the most interesting nanomaterials, practical and commercially useful. This objective is reached by simply applying a chemical reaction to their surfaces. Through an original synthetic protocol, designed and optimized by its partners, the FULCARS Consortium has succeeded in making CNT easy to handle and biocompatible. So much so, that some of the major directions of the work carried out by FULCARS cover as diverse fields as the targeted delivery of drugs and the conversion of solar energy into electrical energy. Indeed, in the Consortium laboratories, several years have allowed verification of the surprising fact that functionalised nanotubes, possess the extraordinary ability to pierce and cross cell membranes, a property that the Consortium has exploited to develop drug vectors able to carry one or more therapeutic agents.

The project creates the foundations for the combinations of imaging and therapy, or cocktail therapies delivered through the same construct. Success of this project will benefit a large number of patient groups and biomedicine overall. The same functionalised nanotubes are materials so versatile that FULCARS has also been able to develop nanosystems that have produced a significant improvement over all other carbon-based systems in the conversion of solar energy into electricity. The complementary nature and specific skills of the members of the Consortium were an integral part of the success of the proponents.

From magnetic avalanches to magnetic deflagration: a new field of physics is born

Project: QUMAGDE

Participating Countries: Spain, Germany, Belgium

When they got together in 2001, the QUMAGDE research team’s objective was to understand the so-called magnetic avalanches occurring in molecular magnets. They have relied on their different areas of expertise during the various phases of the research project: from the determination of the conditions under which the magnetic avalanches occur, to trying to gain control of the process by igniting the avalanche via the influence of surface acoustic waves and pulsed magnetic fields.

These experiments have led to the discovery of a new physical phenomenon: the quantum magnetic deflagration. In contrast to conventional deflagration (or burning), magnetic deflagration has two new properties: firstly, a quantum law governs the propagation of the “magnetic flame” and secondly there is the emission in the giga- and terahertz frequency range. Magnetic deflagration in molecular magnets can be used for new applications in areas such as energy and telecommunications, but also in materials characterisation, biomedical, biology, ultra-fast reading/writing processes and for safe (contrary to X-ray techniques) and radiation-damage-free medical and security imaging with terahertz beams.

In addition, the novelties of the applications will certainly create new business niches for European industries, in particular in the medical diagnostics device and security screening sectors and in the electronic communication technologies. On the other hand, this project has contributed to the emergence of a new multidisciplinary scientific field - Quantum Magnetoacoustics - combining new physics in areas such as nanomagnetism, high-frequency magnetoacoustics, macroscopic quantum mechanics, etc. Over the last several years, the team has received five international patents in collaboration with international companies on nanomagnetism and generation of super radiance.

Gaining a clear picture of molecules through colouring

Project NEMABS

Participating Countries: Germany, Belgium

The NEMABS project allows single molecules to be viewed by colouring them. Through this technique the behaviours of the molecule can be studied and analysed in a more efficient way than simply visualising it in a three dimensional space. For this purpose the team developed, designed and synthesized a new family of dyes attaching to them a number of special properties such as systematic control of absorption and emission, photo-stability, high fluorescence, etc. These properties allow the dyes to be fixed on various types of molecules such as DNAs, proteins, etc. Through this technique, molecules carry a dye as a tag so that this single vehicle can be detected in action. The group has also developed its own software for analysis purposes. The material developments of the product have also shown to be of practical importance. This aspect has led to many patents and interactions with companies for further exploration and technological application. The Mainz and the Leuven group have a long tradition of closely interacting at European level. They have gone across borders by applying their expertise to fields of classical polymer science, catalytic processes and medicinal chemistry.

The consortium stands out not only by the mere number of high ranking publications, training of young researchers and collaboration with industrial partners, but even more so by the width and depth of, both, the synthetic and the photophysical and physical chemistry methodologies based on a jointly developed conceptual approach. Therefore, we can conclude that this consortium is unique world-wide.

Quantum mechanics brings breakthroughs to Information processing

Project QGATES

Participating Countries: Austria, UK, Germany, Slovakia, France, Spain

This project has studied approaches to information processing (computation) that embrace quantum mechanics - the fundamental physical theory that governs the behaviour of all matter. The QGATES project has realised the elementary building blocks of quantum computers using atoms and ions that are levitated (trapped) at well controlled positions, using electromagnetic fields. Inside the common computers on our desks, data are stored as bits which take the value 0 or 1. Bits are realised using transistors and an array of such bits is called a register. Other devices called gates are built using groups of transistors. A gate gives a specified output for a given input. At the heart of a computer programme lies an algorithm - a mathematical procedure implemented as a set of instructions that sets up the required network of gates. Data are fed into the computer and the programme is executed until the desired result of the task is realised.

Like today's ordinary computer, a future quantum computer will carry out computational tasks, however, theoretical work has shown that some problems can be solved much more efficiently on a quantum computer than on an ordinary classical machine. In a quantum computer, the information is stored in qubits (quantum bits of information) which can take values of 0 and 1 like their classical counterparts, but also any coherent superposition of 0 and 1. In a sense, a quantum bit can be both in the 0-state and the 1-state at the same time. The power of quantum computers is directly related to such superpositions: when applying logical operations to qubits one can perform operations in parallel. Another fundamental quantum mechanical resource employed in quantum computation is entanglement, where two or more remote particles share a single quantum state. In the prototype quantum computers of the QGATES project quantum bits were encoded by putting trapped atoms into states in which their constituent electrons had well specified energies. The atomic qubits were then manipulated using light or radio-frequency pulses and complex sequences of such pulses were employed to realize simple quantum gates and algorithms.

The project group believes their work is exceptional because they have achieved important milestones such as the demonstration of quantum registers, the operation of quantum gates and the demonstration of simple algorithms. They have also generated entangled states of up to 8 ions, demonstrated a process called quantum teleportation where the unknown state of one atom is transferred to another atom and have worked towards interfacing quantum information from atoms to light. They believe that their work has paved the way to scalable implementations of quantum processors.

A new glimpse at the highest-energy Universe

Project "H.E.S.S."

Countries: Germany, Czech Republic, UK, Poland, France, Ireland, South Africa, Armenia

The High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) – an array of four big “Cherenkov” telescopes built and operated in Namibia by a European consortium together with African partners – has in the last years revolutionized astronomy at the very highest energies of the electromagnetic spectrum, several orders of magnitude beyond the energy range accessible to satellite-based instruments.

The telescopes detect light emitted when cosmic gamma rays with tera electron volt energies – about a million times higher than the energies of normal light - are absorbed in the Earth’s atmosphere. By reconstructing the trajectory of the gamma rays, an image of the very-high-energy gamma-ray sky is generated. In its first years of operation, H.E.S.S. results have provided a number of breakthroughs in this young field of astronomy, such as the first resolved image of a supernova shock wave acting as a cosmic particle accelerator, the first survey of the central region of our Galaxy revealing a large number of novel gamma-ray sources, the detailed study of high-energy radiation from the centre of our Galaxy, or the discovery of a stellar black hole – a “microquasar” – generating gamma rays. The H.E.S.S. results reveal entirely new views of a “nonthermal” universe, governed by processes acting at energies well beyond the energy scales provided by even the hottest stars in the Cosmos.

The H.E.S.S. project involves about 100 scientists from Germany, France, the UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Armenia, South Africa and Namibia. They have designed and built the instrument, have developed the complex software for data acquisition and data analysis, and are operating the telescopes for about 1000 hours each year, when the sky is dark enough to see the faint gamma-ray traces. The project also provides excellent training opportunities for young scientists.

Category 2 - Life Sciences:

Understanding cell death: pathways for future treatments of cancer and AIDS


Participating Countries: France, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Germany

The project aims to understand the mechanism of apoptosis (programmed cell death) and the impact that deficient cell death regulation has in human disease. Excessive apoptosis participates in the cause of stroke and heart infarction as well as hereditary diseases and AIDS. Deficient apoptosis is one of the hallmarks of cancer and can cause chemotherapy resistance and treatment failure.

The findings of this project have specific importance for those wanting to find out how cell death occurs. Together 6 research teams from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden have collaborated to gain an understanding of the mechanisms of apoptosis. The team has defined the pathways affecting distinct cellular organelles and has discovered cell death effectors (including AIF and lysosmal proteases) as well as inhibitory processes (in particular heat shock proteins). The teams have applied this fundamental knowledge in the areas of cancer research and AIDS research.

Protein dynamics in cell nuclei


Participating Countries: UK, Germany, Denmark

The cell nucleus is where genes are located and expressed and is essential for life. The nucleus has separate compartments, each containing many protein complexes, and the correct functioning of the cell nucleus involves regular movements of these proteins between the nuclear compartments. This dynamic system can be disrupted in many human diseases, including cancer, viral infections and inherited genetic disorders.

The DYNAQPRIM project made important advances by allowing the detection and analysis of large multi-protein complexes in the cell nucleus through which scientists were able to measure and study protein dynamics in the cell. The work carried out during this project has pioneered the development of new applications and approaches in functional proteomics, using a novel combination of fluorescence microscopy and mass spectrometry. The new methods were developed to solve problems in cell biology, especially concerning the structure and function of the cell nucleus. The DYNAQPRIM project provides many benefits to the biological and biomedical research communities, stimulated by EU involvement, and will aid future work to develop improvements in diagnostics and therapeutics.

Uncovering genetic determinants of Osteoporosis and other Bone Diseases


Participating Countries: UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Greece, Italy, France

The project conducted by EUROGENOS aimed to identify and study possible genetic mutations that can cause osteoporosis and rare monogenic bone diseases. The participants also focused on the mechanisms by which common and rare genetic variants regulate bone cell function using cell biology and gene targeting techniques in the hope of finding new genetic markers for susceptibility to bone diseases and identifying pathways to form the focus for the design of the next generation of drug treatments.

A diverse research team, which includes basic and clinical researchers, mathematicians and epidemiologists conducted several lines of research, which ranged from laboratory studies of cultured cells to large scale clinical studies of patients. The results obtained have informed the design of future research projects in the field and have been aimed at improving the quality of life for patients that suffer from osteoporosis and rare bone diseases.

Category 3 - Socio-Economic Sciences:

Analysis of constitution building in the European Union

Project DOSEI

Participating Countries: Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, UK, Greece, Belgium, Switzerland

The DOSEI, Domestic structures and European integration, project focuses on one of the most important political challenges in the history of European integration: the creation of a constitution for the world’s second largest economic power. Questions explored in the research include why do European states attempt to establish a constitution, what are the goals and constraints for constitution building and what will this constitutional effort change for the project of European integration? DOSEI provides the first historical archive on EU constitution building by collecting the positions of the actors involved during the draft stage of the European Convention, the preparatory stage of domestic inter-ministerial coordination, the summit negotiation stage at the IGC, and the ratification stage in all member states.

DOSEI also analyses the strategies which actors applied during these stages and investigates the relationship between delegates and their governments as well as between government and their citizens. In this respect DOSEI results point to the risks and pitfalls of this process and provide insight into the reformability of the EU. Three groups of persons can benefit from a better understanding of the process as analysed in the DOSEI project: politicians, researchers and citizens improving their understanding of the multiple issues and dynamics of European integration.

The DOSEI project has demonstrated that expert interviews, text analysis and mass surveys are valuable tools to validly measure political preferences and to predict even “unexpected” outcomes, such as the adoption of a draft text by the delegates of the Convention, the signing of the treaty by all 25 member states as well as the failed referenda in France and the Netherlands.

Life Courses in the Globalisation Process


Participating Countries: Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Hungary

The GLOBALIFE project made advances in being the first cross-national research project that has studied the impact of globalisation on individual life courses and employment careers in different countries. The findings of this project have undoubtedly made a major contribution to the fostering and developing of cross-national research in the social sciences. Benefits include the production of around 80 working papers and articles in peer-reviewed journals in addition to four comparative volumes.

The employment of scientists and interaction at the universities has allowed collaboration within 17 different countries. By offering this opportunity, all former project members have obtained excellent positions after their involvement with the GLOBALIFE project and furthermore, the international exchange and training of young scientists has opened new and promising opportunities in European comparative science.

Category 4 – Engineering:

Solar Hydrogen Production via Water Splitting


Participating Countries: Greece, Germany, Denmark, UK

The HYDROSOL team has developed an innovative solar thermo-chemical reactor for the production of hydrogen from water splitting, resembling the familiar catalytic converter of automobiles. The reactor contains no moving parts and is constructed from special ceramic multi-channelled monoliths that absorb solar radiation. The monolith channels are coated with active water-splitting nanomaterials capable of splitting water vapour passing through the reactor by trapping its oxygen and leaving as product pure hydrogen in the effluent gas stream. In a next step, the oxygen trapping material is solar-aided regenerated (i.e. releases the oxygen absorbed) and a cyclic operation is established on a single, closed reactor/receiver system. The integration of solar energy concentration systems with systems capable to split water will have an immense impact on energy economics worldwide, as it is a promising route to provide affordable, renewable solar hydrogen with virtually zero CO2 emissions.

The uniqueness of the HYDROSOL approach is based on coating nanomaterials with very high water-splitting activity and regenerability (produced by novel routes such as aerosol & combustion synthesis) on special ceramic reactors with high capacity for solar heat absorption. The production of solar hydrogen will offer opportunities to many poor regions of the world which have a huge solar potential. Producing solar hydrogen will create new opportunities for countries of Southern Europe that can become local producers of energy.

Category 5 - Information Sciences:

Thermally Assisted Magnetic Random Access Memory

(Project: TAM-RAM

Participating Countries: France, Portugal, Germany

The first objective of the TAM-RAM project was to offer an alternative writing scheme for non-volatile magnetic memories (MRAM) that could overcome the limitations of the standard MRAM technology (such as write selectivity errors and poor scalability). This new approach consists of combining a temporary heating of the cell together with a pulse of magnetic field. This concept solves all selectivity concerns since only one bit is heated at a time and only this bit can be written. The scalability of the TAM-RAM concept is also excellent since the magnetic anisotropy of the storage layer is reinforced by a large exchange coupling with an anti-ferromagnetic material at room temperature and only reduced to minimum at the write temperature.

Another benefit that makes the TAM-RAM concept so attractive is the good scalability of the power consumption which is expected to scale with technological nodes. In addition, TAM RAM are quasi immune from magneto-electrical perturbations, which is good for consumer electronics but also of high interest for spatial applications. Additional objectives of the project included: creating a pole of excellence in MRAM development gathering several partners with complementary skills in order to offer a large spectrum of expertise able to answer all kinds of questions or demand from industry; attracting the interest of an industrial partner to go beyond the simple demonstration of the concept and make a real implementation of the TAM-RAM technology; and bringing a new European equipment provider to the forefront of the MRAM scene with a unique know-how on advanced MTJ structures and connect it with industrial partners.

The project’s work is exceptional for several reasons, including: the innovative character of this research at the leading edge of spin electronics; the excellent complementarity of the four partners involved in the second phase of the IST-NEXT European project; the creation of a start-up company CROCUS Technology, who will further develop this technology and go to the production in partnership with a large European foundry; and the impact of this technology on the SINGULUS German Company. The excellent results obtained in NEXT were a good advertisement for the industrial TIMARIS deposition tool developed by this company. This greatly helped this company to recently sell several of these tools to some start-up companies in the US and Europe.

Project: Bringing Internet security to the next level

Project AVISPA

Participating Countries: Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland

Today’s economic, political and social life largely depends on communication and IT infrastructures. The new era of e-commerce, e-government and e-health would not be possible without substantial advances in IT applications and infrastructures and without trust in the security of these transactions. With the spread of the Internet and network-based services, the number and scale of Internet security protocols and applications under development has out-paced the ability of both industry and academia to rigorously analyse and validate them. Through the development of the AVISPA Tool, the project has provided a crucial step towards high-level quality certification of internet security protocols, including those that protect the privacy of the natural persons or institutions involved. Protocol designers and engineers can use this Tool to verify security properties of the products that they are currently designing in a faster and cheaper way than through traditional testing procedures.

NB: The AVISPA Tool was released to the public on June 2005 and an updated version, AVISPA Tool v1.1 was launched in June 2006. Since its launch, there have been 318 downloads of the software package and nearly 200 people registered to the users mailing list. A number of extensions of the Tool and its component technologies are also planned for the near future, including: porting to the Windows platform (currently it runs in Linux and Mac) and extending the AVISPA Library of Internet security protocols with specifications of new problems and industrial case-s

See also IP/07/132

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