How can electricity be extracted from waste heat? Why is an unhealthy lifestyle inherited? Is it possible to imitate human tissue on a chip? These are the challenges for three Wallenberg Academy Fellows at Linköping University.
“This is one of the largest investments ever made in younger researchers in our country. It creates opportunities for the researchers to tackle difficult long-term problems,” says Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Academy.
Per Eklund is a reader in thin film physics, and is developing materials – known as “thermoelectric materials” – that can convert heat into electricity. The goal of his research is to be able to utilize excess heat from both appliances and machines and from the sun, which could contribute to a much more energy-efficient society.
This requires a material that conducts heat poorly and can thereby be hot at one end and cold at the other. If this temperature difference is stable, it can be utilized to generate electricity. Mr Eklund is building his material layer by layer, in which structures that are only a few billionths of a meter thick can reduce heat conduction.
Anna Herland is currently a visiting researcher at Harvard University in the United States, where she is developing the ‘organ in a chip’ – components that imitate human tissues. The purpose is to create models that can be used in the development of new medicines.
Ms Herland is cultivating different forms of cells from people on a chip equipped with microchannels through which small volumes of fluid can flow, like in a blood vessel. As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, she will also develop a “brain on a chip” on which cells from the blood-brain barrier interact with surrounding nerve cells.
Anita Öst is a researcher in the rapidly-growing field of epigenetics. She recently published results showing that the amount of sugar that male fruit flies eat before mating affects the fat content of their offspring. She is now going further to explain, in detail, how lifestyle and other acquired characteristics can be inherited for generations.
One hypothesis is that sugar intake affects special RNA molecules found in sperm. A change in the content of what is known as piRNA can have effects on the fertilised egg and the development of the embryo. One hope is that more knowledge of these processes can help people who are finding it difficult to get rid of their obesity.
In total, 29 Academy Fellows were elected in the fields of the humanities, medicine, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the engineering sciences. The candidates were nominated by their respective universities, and were then evaluated by assessors in the five scientific academies.
LiU Vice-Chancellor Helen Dannetun congratulated the three outstanding researchers, who will now become Wallenberg Academy Fellows at the university.
“Thanks to this long-term investment, they now have the opportunity to tackle extremely challenging questions. In other words, the conditions for new, exciting results are good,” Ms Dannetun said.