This month we hear from the next generation of scientists and researchers in Europe about how they’re shaping the future, what they see as urgent research priorities to tackle global challenges, and the impact of the pandemic. From biodiversity to how to make industry greener, and the digital divide to the future of work, our stories reflect some of the issues that will be under discussion at the European Commission’s annual Research & Innovation Days conference at the end of June. We look at the impact of Europe’s pandemic response on vulnerable populations, ask five young bioeconomy researchers what this economy really is and how we get there, examine what new business models mean for the future of work, and more.
How do you design and build a robot that you can’t even see? And what would you use it for? In May, Horizon explores the developing field of nanorobotics and its potential applications. We speak to Prof. Brad Nelson at ETH Zurich in Switzerland whose team found that the nanobots they were working on destroyed the drugs they were meant to be delivering, so are now repurposing them to purify water. We speak to researchers who are using the origami-like properties of DNA to make tools such as nanorobotic boxes with lids that open, and others that have created a molecular robotic arm that can pick up, reposition and release molecules. And because tasks like going into a blood vessel to dissolve a dangerous clot would be ideal for a nanorobot, we find out how scientists are devising ways to enable nanorobots to travel through the bloodstream.
The asteroids in our solar system are the remnants of planetary formation. They hold clues about how the Milky Way formed, but they also hold promise and peril for humans as the source of both rich materials and potentially dangerous cratering events. This month we look at the latest in asteroid research. We speak to Dr Naomi Murdoch, a planetary scientist, about her work investigating asteroids, how to land on them and how to defend Earth from a dangerous event. We look in depth at how scientists in the field of planetary defence are developing rapid response techniques to detect an Earth-bound ‘imminent impactor’, determine within days whether it’s dangerous, and evacuate people from the danger zone. We speak to scientists studying exactly what asteroids are composed of so that we can categorise them from Earth, and we look at work studying asteroid dust to see what it can tell us about the early days of our solar system and the origins of life on our planet.
With around half a million species of insects reported to be at risk of extinction and studies already showing a large decline in abundance, this month Horizon looks at what reduced insect biodiversity means for us – and what we can do about it. We speak to rove beetle expert Dr Alexey Solodovnikov about the services insects provide, from waste disposal and pollination to monitoring climate change and providing information about a new pandemic. We find out how scientists hope to cut the use of pesticides – one of the big culprits for reducing insect diversity – with new ways of pest control. We look at how efforts to boost urban green space in Europe’s cities is impacting insect life and we ask whether people’s attitudes to insects affect conservation efforts.
The coronavirus pandemic rattled our supply chains, putting them under intense pressure and forcing many to become aware of these complex systems that bring us food, medicine and other goods. Was 2020 a wake-up call to rethink supply chains? Or have they proved more robust than we feared and should continue as business as usual? In February, we ask whether today’s supply chains are due for reconfiguration. We speak to Dr Tessa Avermaete, a bioeconomist at KU Leuven in Belgium, about why short and local is not always better – or more sustainable – when it comes to food supply. We look at how medical supply chains can be maintained or even set up during a crisis situation, and at the environmental and social impacts of Europe’s supply chains on the rest of the world. And we look at how, in the future, goods from food to furniture could be transported according to new concept called the ‘physical internet’, where logistics mimics how information travels through the internet.
The construction industry has a heavy carbon footprint, accounting for some 40% of global emissions, and yet, as the world’s population grows, demand for housing and building is only soaring. We kick off 2021 by looking at how the construction sector can become greener and some of the radical solutions required. We speak to sustainable architecture expert Dr Catherine De Wolf about the need to design recyclable buildings and how that will require a fundamental restructure of the way the construction industry works. We look at nearly zero energy wooden homes and investigate whether this material can help us kick our concrete habit – concrete being the most used substance on Earth. We home in on techniques to make cement greener and piezoelectric to light up spaces with the addition of vegetable waste, and at how self-healing building materials can prolong the life of civil infrastructures. And we explore the promise of fungal architecture to see whether structures grown from fungus can green the way we build.
In December, as the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to create a precise 3-D map of a billion objects in the Milky Way releases its next tranche of data, we take an in-depth look at what we know – and what we don’t – about our home galaxy. We speak to astrophysicist Prof. Ralf Klessen about why it might enhance our understanding of the Milky Way to consider it as a constantly evolving ecosystem rather than studying different parts in an isolated way. We speak to scientists who are trying to image the centre of the galaxy, which is hidden from view behind giant dust and gas clouds, and we explore the latest research into how stars are formed. And finally, we find out what the galaxies surrounding the Milky Way can tell us about our home system.
In November, Horizon takes a deep dive into the captivating, diverse world of clouds to understand what they mean for climate change. We speak to atmospheric physicist Prof. Pier Siebesma about why clouds are still one of the biggest sources of uncertainty when it comes to climate change and how new field studies are helping to reduce some of the unknowns. We speak to a researcher about flying through tropical clouds to collect particles at high altitudes to paint a full picture of the role of clouds and aerosols in our planet’s climate. And we also delve into research investigating how global warming is changing clouds and why this could bring about extreme weather and rain, and we look at how aerosols – crucial for cloud formation - are changing due to anthropogenic pollution.
In October, Horizon discovers a futuristic world of transparent e-books, plastic solar cells and electronic skin with a look at some of the applications of organic electronics. We speak to organic chemist Prof. Andreas Hirsch about how using carbon rather than silicon in electronics can make them flexible, lightweight and biocompatible and could lead to a new generation of human-looking robots and ‘chemical’ computing. We take a look at work to create electronic skin – self-healing, stretchable material that can mimic some of the functions of human skin – and its potential uses. We discover how thin, flexible, plastic solar cells could turn surfaces such as cars and fabric into sources of renewable energy, and we uncover some novel approaches to charging wearable electronics.
The world looks very different from this time last year. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the centrality of science, research and innovation, accelerated some changes already in the works, but also exposed our weaknesses. In September, Horizon looks at how the pandemic is reshaping Europe in areas including health research, work, tech, transport and food – and how research can contribute to Europe’s recovery over the coming years. We will also be covering the European Research & Innovation Days at the end of the month, which will bring together scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and citizens to debate how research and innovation can ensure that the transition to a post-coronavirus society is sustainable, inclusive and resilient.
Researchers are investigating links between microbes and rare earth elements.
We asked five young bioeconomy researchers to set out their vision.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.