Future leaders to deliver global impact

Dr Alexander Valavanis will overcome the limitations of terahertz gas sensors by using Quantum-Cascade Laser technology developed at Leeds to test key chemical reactions involved in climate change.

He is one of three University of Leeds researchers to be awarded a Future Leaders Fellowship funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), announced today by Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

Dr Lauren Gregoire - who is leading a team of researchers to produce the first robust projection of future ice sheet to determine rise in sea levels, and Dr Katie McQuaid - who is leading a project to combine social science and the arts to strengthen the impact and inclusivity of climate resilient urban governance - both from the Faculty of Environment, were also awarded Future Leaders Fellowships.

Revealing the chemistry of climate change and star formation, using terahertz waves

Many of the invisible gases in the Earth's atmosphere and the dust and gas clouds between stars can only be detected in the terahertz part of the light spectrum – midway between infrared and microwaves. These gases glow with unique terahertz fingerprints, which provide a wealth of information about the birth of new stars and planets, and the chemical processes that govern the climate. However, most terahertz systems are too large, fragile and complex for space missions, and lack the sensitivity needed for studying reactive gases. 

Dr Alexander Valavanis, from the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, will overcome the previous limitations of terahertz gas sensors, by using Quantum-Cascade Laser technology developed at Leeds — compact yet ultra-powerful sources of terahertz waves. He will integrate these with satellite-ready systems, and high-precision sensing techniques for the first time, enabling the first studies of key chemical reactions involved in climate change. 

These advancements should also allow ultra-precise monitoring of chemical processes in industry or in research laboratories, such as ensuring that vehicles meet strict new emission targets or developing breath tests for detecting cancer and respiratory disease. 

Dr Valavanis said: “Developing terahertz instrumentation will allow for the first lab-studies of key atmospheric reactions and underpin future satellite missions.

An Earth-observing terahertz satellite would enable a more detailed study of climate and space-weather effects in the upper atmosphere, informing future climate predictions. 

“The same gas-sensing technology has enormous industrial and clinical potential, including testing new clean-diesel vehicles, and advancing our ability to diagnose diseases without invasive surgical tests.”

World-leading fellows

One of UKRI’s flagship programmes, the scheme provides sustained funding and resources for the best early-career researchers and innovators, allowing them the time and flexibility to tackle ambitious research projects. For the Leeds researchers this includes predicting extreme sea level rise, building inclusive, climate-resilient cities, and developing new sensors to understand the chemistry of the changing climate.

Of the 41 fellows announced today, three are from the University of Leeds, highlighting the University’s ability to attract top talent and critical thinkers who are making a difference to the world around them.

Science and Innovation Minister Chris Skidmore said: “From Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web, to Rosalind Franklin whose work was critical in understanding DNA, we have a rich history of talented individuals who have paved the way for ground-breaking research and discoveries in their fields. 

Our investment in these Future Leaders Fellows will enable the brightest and best of our scientists and researchers to work with leading lights in industry, to help their research move from the laboratory to the commercial market.

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “The Future Leaders Fellowships offer long-term support for the most talented researchers and innovators. Fellows will be encouraged to be adventurous in tackling tough and important research questions and opportunities for innovation. 

The Fellowships offer opportunities to move across disciplinary boundaries and between academia and industry.

"These Fellowships will enable us to grow the strong supply of talented individuals needed to ensure that UK research and innovation continues to be world leading.” 

The fellows’ ground-breaking work also forms a key part of maintaining the UK’s status at the forefront of cutting-edge research and innovation long into the future. The UK is already a research superpower, producing six per cent of the world’s total research publications and 15 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited articles.

Addressing global challenges

The University of Leeds is a leader in addressing global challenges and has been ranked in the top three UK universities for global funding success. 

Read more about the University’s GCRF projects and discover the University’s global presence and research and innovation excellence.