10 Irish breakthroughs of 2016 worthy of some serious praise

15 Dec 2016

2016 celebration cake. Image: nito/Shutterstock

It was a memorable year for Irish research and innovation, and these 10 breakthroughs have hopefully laid the foundations for a prosperous 2017.

While the year may have been dominated by news of Donald Trump, Brexit and the death of David Bowie, the number of Irish breakthroughs continued to rumble on across a multitude of different scientific fields.

In the last month alone, we have seen people from these shores be a part of some of the world’s leading scientific endeavours, be it Offaly native Colm O’Rourke working with MIT to develop a Hyperloop pod, or an AMBER team using Silly Putty graphene as medical sensors.

That isn’t to say that there have not been some challenges over the past year for Irish researchers, most notably raised by the Irish Research Council’s Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, who warned of issues with finance, balance and interdisciplinarity.

And yet, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has said that through the EU, Irish researchers have benefited by as much as €2.4m per week since the Horizon 2020 initiative started in 2014.

Young Irish researchers are also finding themselves prominent in the conversations about where research is going in the years to come.

This was seen last July when Dr Shane Bergin of University College Dublin was a part of the group that submitted the EU Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, a four-point plan aiming to change how scientific research is conducted from the grassroots level.

So, looking back fondly on the past year, here are just 10 of the major Irish breakthroughs that are really worth celebrating as we enter the new year.

Researchers’ breakthrough may accelerate hydrogen’s replacement of fossil fuels

Last May, researchers at the CRANN nanoscience institute at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) discovered a new clean energy material that could increase the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel in energy-efficient transport.

Hydrogen is readily prepared by splitting water electrically into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen, in a process called electrolysis. However, this process requires a significant energy input and has proven most effective with ruthenium oxide, which is a scarce and expensive material.

Hydrogen fuel cell

A hydrogen fuel cell (not a part of this research). Image: science photo/Shutterstock

Publishing its findings in the prestigious international journal ACS Catalysis, the CRANN team revealed it had developed a material that enhances the splitting of water at a very low-energy cost, using Earth-abundant raw materials.

“This scientific breakthrough brings us one step closer to a realistic energy alternative,” said Lorraine Byrne, executive director of CRANN.

Breakthrough as Irish scientists discover a new form of light

Sticking with CRANN, researchers there also had a ‘bright idea’ when it came to photonics research.

During the summer, physicists made a new discovery that could profoundly impact our understanding of the fundamental nature of light, and possibly transform the future of communications.

Publishing its findings in the online journal Science Advances, the team was led by Prof Paul Eastham and Prof John Donegan.

One of the measurable characteristics of light is known as angular momentum.


Image: Elenamiv/Shutterstock

Up until now, in all forms of light, the angular momentum was thought to be multiples of Planck’s constant – the physical constant that sets the scale of quantum effects.

Using a specially constructed device, they were able to measure the flow of angular momentum in a beam of light. They were also able, for the first time, to measure the variations in this flow caused by quantum effects.

“What I think is so exciting about this result is that even this fundamental property of light – that physicists have always thought was fixed – can be changed,” Eastham said.

Ancient Irish inherited Celtic curse from Russia

At the dawn of 2016, a team of geneticists sequenced the genomes of ancient Irish farmers, discovering that haemochromatosis (known as the ‘Celtic curse’) was inherited by people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe 4,000 years ago.

The genetic variants circulating in the three Bronze Age men had the most common Irish Y chromosome type: blue eye alleles and the most important variant for the genetic disease, haemochromatosis.

While the early farmer resembled southern Europeans, with black hair and brown eyes, an influx of migrants from the east appears to have started soon after.

“This degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues,” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics in TCD at the time.

Irish schoolgirl develops multiple sclerosis device

Earlier this year, a smart device that helps MS sufferers grip and hold objects was developed by Lauren Murphy, a transition year student at Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan, Dublin.

Noticing the ‘clenched fist’ problem her father – and many MS sufferers – regularly had, she created a tangible aid to encourage greater hand dexterity.

Through using the therapy device, Murphy said she recorded improved dexterity in her father after he performed particular exercises.

MS device

The device developed by Lauren Murphy for her father, Gerard. Image: DCU

Having then decided to expand the idea at a DCU hackathon, Murphy was able to get the device to give immediate feedback as users performed activities measuring force, range of motion and the number of actions in a given time.

For her efforts, Murphy travelled to the US as part of Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), with $4m up for grabs.

Unfortunately, she missed out on placing but was commended for making the final 1,700 students.

Irish mammy co-authors patent for space mission invention by mistake

When it came to innovation in Ireland this year, age was just a number as the 82-year-old Limerick mother of an Irish consultant to NASA inspired a new invention that may one day be used in swarms of spacecraft.

The concept allows for the charging of mission-critical spacecraft, similar to a pace setter in a 10,000m race, getting the top racers into shape for the ultimate showdown.

Delia Hinchey

Delia Hinchey (82), co-author of a US space exploration patent, with her son Prof Mike Hinchey, director of Lero. Image: FusionShooters

“I overheard my mum on the phone describing a project I was working on,” Hinchey said. “She said that I was researching a system whereby a drone could chase after another one and fix it. I was working on no such thing but then I thought to myself, ‘Hey, that’s not such a bad idea’.”

As co-author on the research paper proposing the concept, Delia Hinchey admitted she wasn’t too familiar with her own technology.

“It’s all a bit beyond me but I’m delighted I sparked something which might be of value to space exploration in the future,” she said.

Quantum computing breakthrough by Tyndall researchers

Quantum computing and the quantum internet could open a whole new world of knowledge, despite our own understanding of its processes still remaining in the early stages so far.

But for the Tyndall National Institute team down in Cork, one breakthrough it made in the field could have major implications for its development in the future.

The breakthrough came when one of its teams created quantum dot light-emitting diodes (or LEDs) that can produce entangled photons (whose actions are linked), theoretically enabling their use to encode information in quantum computing.

Dr Emanuele Pelucchi

A research team at Tyndall National Institute has made a quantum leap by developing a technical step that could enable the use of quantum computers sooner than expected. Image: Gerard McCarthy

Being able to control the positions of the quantum dots and to build them at scale are key factors to underpin more widespread use of quantum computing technologies as they develop.

“The reported results are an important step towards the realisation of integrated quantum photonic circuits designed for quantum information processing tasks, where thousands or more sources would function in unison,” said lead researcher, Dr Emanuele Pelucchi.

Irish-led physics team finds way to make electrons ‘fatter’ at will

When you are making breakthroughs in what is described as ‘fundamental physics’, you know you have done something special.

Back in August, a research team led by Prof Stefano Sanvito experimented with an exotic mineral called zirconium pentatelluride (ZrTe5) and came across something rather strange.

To its astonishment, the team found that with help from an external stimulus, an object’s electron mass could be switched on or off like a light switch.

Fat electrons

Image: Thailand Photos for Sale/Shutterstock

In the absence of a magnetic field, ZrTe5 allows an electric current to flow through it because the electrons responsible for the current have no mass.

Yet when a magnetic field of 60 Tesla is applied – more than 1m times more intense than our own planet’s magnetic field – the current drastically reduces, resulting in ZrTe5 acquiring mass because of ‘fattening’ electrons.

“Like any fundamental discovery in physics, the importance is in its discovery,” said Sanvito.

2016’s Young Scientist winners could shake up the European food industry

This wouldn’t be a year in review of Ireland’s brightest minds without mentioning the winning team of this year’s BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in January.

With more girls applying than ever before, it might come as no surprise that two young women from Loreto Secondary School in Dublin were named this year’s grand prize winners.

Transition year students Maria Louise Fufezan (16) and Diana Bura (15) wowed the Young Scientist judges with An Investigation into the Effects of Enzymes Used in Animal Feed Additives on the Lifespan of Caenorhabditis Elegans, which is a nematode (roundworm) found in temperate soil environments.

The girls were inspired to investigate if enzymes used in animal feed were in any way harmful to the environment – particularly to these nematodes – when they noticed that they were being used to bulk up meat produce in the EU, where the use of growth hormones is prohibited.

In skirting around this regulation by using enzymes, meat producers may well be causing harm to the nematodes.

Anti-drowning device wins 2016 Irish James Dyson award

When it comes to the international James Dyson awards for budding entrepreneurs, Ireland has done rather well for itself since it launched in 2007.

Just last year, University of Limerick graduate Cathal Redmond finished joint runner-up for the James Dyson award with his underwater breathing system, Express Dive.

This year, a Cork Institute of Technology team led by 27-year-old Arran Coughlan developed the H-FLO anti-drowning device that won the Irish leg of the competition.

H-Flo tea

H-FLO team from left: Kelly Lane, Shane O’Driscoll, Arran Coughlan, Gerard O’Connell and Kacey Mealy. Image: Gerard McCarthy

The idea behind the device is that it could be provided to crews working on or near large bodies of water, giving them the ability to escape a potentially deadly situation.

Inspired by the tragic deaths of labourers TJ O’Herlihy and Bryan Whelan last year, the H-FLO team has already formulated plans to bring the device to the automotive and offshore oil rigging industries.

Unfortunately, despite making it to the global shortlist of 20, the H-FLO missed out on a placed finish.

Biomaterials breakthrough helps injured Beyoncé return to showjumping

Unfortunately for some, this story is not about ‘Queen Bey’ herself, but a thoroughbred filly of the same name.

The innovation came as a team of researchers discovered a new material, which repaired Beyoncé’s damaged knee cartilage to return her to competitive showjumping.

The patented, multilayered 3D porous scaffold, called ChondroColl, was developed by a team of researchers from the RCSI Tissue Engineering Research Group and the AMBER Centre, led by Prof Fergal O’Brien.

Beyoncé horse

Dr Tanya Levingstone, research fellow and honorary research lecturer in RCSI with William Lalor, veterinarian at Equine Sports Medicine and owner of thoroughbred filly, Beyoncé. Image: RCSI

ChondroColl repairs articular joints by stimulating host stem cells to regenerate both bone and cartilage, using the composition and architecture of the biomaterial to actively direct tissue formation.

“Our hope for the future is this technology will benefit human patients and through our spin-out company, SurgaColl Technologies, this is very close to becoming a reality,” O’Brien said.