10 major Irish breakthroughs of the year so far worth celebrating

27 May 2016

It’s already been a jam-packed year for Irish science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) discoveries, so to honour them, here are 10 of the biggest that have made headlines.

If you’re a regular reader of Siliconrepublic.com, you’re probably familiar with the amazing work Irish researchers have been getting up to, whether it’s looking at things at a molecular level, or looking into the vastness of the cosmos.

There’s no denying that for a small nation, we have achieved an awful lot.

A lot done, more to do

The Irish Research Council’s chair, Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, recently published a piece revealing some rather incredible statistics about Irish research.

For example, she revealed that Irish researchers are currently ranked among the top 1pc of researchers on a global scale, with Ireland ranking ninth place overall on the most recent Thomson Reuters InCites global scientific rankings.

We rank in the top five in a number of disciplines, including nanoscience, nanotechnology, immunology, computer sciences, and neurosciences and behaviour, based on Essential Science Indicators and Web of Science.

Not that it’s been an easy ride for Irish researchers, of course, in the face of the challenge of competing with nations with resources that far outstrip our own, and yet we have still done incredible things.

With that in mind, here are 10 scientific breakthroughs and achievements that caught our eye so far this year, with the likelihood that may more will come in the second half of the year.

We can’t wait.

Student builds multiple sclerosis therapy device

MS device

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

A student of Loreto in Balbriggan, Lauren Murphy invented a therapeutic device for sufferers of multiple sclerosis after seeing her father struggle with ‘clenched fist’, a common effect of the condition.

Murphy created a tangible aid to encourage greater hand movement that, when tested on her father initially, improved dexterity significantly. Nuwave Ventures and some engineers liked what they saw and helped develop the tool to provide smart, immediate feedback – the sensors are measuring force, range of motion and the number of actions in a given time.

The product was ultimately made from a Nuwave 3D printer after DCU’s Dr Conor McArdle helped develop software, and Nuwave’s Rachit Shah helped with the prototyping. Murphy took her invention to Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair in Arizona in May.

NUI Galway scientists find breast cancer shield


Mammogram image via Shutterstock

Back in April, a duo from NUI Galway found that a single protein can be targeted to help sufferers of ‘oestrogen receptor positive’ breast cancer. The protein XBP1 was found by Drs Sanjeev and Ananya Gupta to increase production of NCOA3, which can help cancer cells avoid anti-oestrogen treatment.

The reason these particular cancer sufferers may benefit is down to how the production of NCOA3 can be flipped. Oestrogen (and progesterone) are in abundance in women’s bodies, potentially serving as fuel for cancerous cells. Hormone therapy adds, blocks, or removes those chemicals to treat the disease, however, many people relapse within 15 years of the treatment.

Cancer cells’ reliance on XBP1 as a shield could, therefore, see it used against them by allowing tailored inhibitors to pull down the cancer’s defences.

So, following this discovery, the suggestion is treatment that uses an XBP1 inhibitor could help oestrogen treatment be more effective.

‘Celtic curse’ inherited into Ireland from Pontic Steppe

At the start of the year, Trinity College Dublin (TCD)  geneticists revealed a significant discovery after sequencing the genomes of ancient Irish farmers. The ‘Celtic curse’ of haemochromatosis didn’t originate in Ireland, rather it was inherited off immigrants from the Pontic Steppe around 4,000 years ago.

Working with archaeologists at Queen’s University Belfast, the Trinity researchers first looked at the remains of a female farmer from the north of the island, who lived 5,200 years ago.

They then looked into the remains of three men found on Rathlin Island who lived 1,200 years later, during the Bronze Age. The make-up of an Irish person, it seems, changed dramatically somewhere in between, with a ‘massive migration’ of people the reason for the shift.

Dublin researcher awarded €2.5m to create the battery of the future

Prof Valeria Nicolosi

Prof Valeria Nicolosi

A project devised by Prof Valeria Nicolosi – of the AMBER materials science research centre in TCD – 3D2DPrint is an innovative kind of energy storage device.

Utilising novel 2D nanomaterials and new 3D-printing processes, Nicolosi and her team aim to develop and 3D print complex material shapes, which could lead to faster charge times and longer-lasting battery life.

The devices would be fully customisable, with custom designs for specific applications, and could be hidden in any material. They are also non-harmful and non-flammable, unlike the current ubiquitous lithium batteries.

This makes them uniquely useful for a range of applications, from driving fitness wearables to powering cardiac implants.

3D2DPrint was awarded a €2.5m ERC Consolidator Grant back in February of this year, the fourth ERC grant Nicolosi has received since 2011.

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

Hydrogen fuel cell

Hydrogen research image via Shutterstock

Hydrogen is often described as the ultimate clean energy source and offers a potential alternative to fossil fuels. However, producing hydrogen through water electrolysis (which splits water into its components, hydrogen and oxygen) has proven most effective with ruthenium oxide, which is a scarce and expensive material.

Just recently, researchers at the CRANN nanoscience institute announced that they have developed a material substituting as much as 90pc of the ruthenium content with the much-more abundant and inexpensive manganese oxide without diminishing its efficiency in water electrolysis.

This breakthrough, published in the international journal ACS Catalysis, could enable energetically efficient and economical production of pure hydrogen using renewable energy sources, which will potentially accelerate the adoption of hydrogen as an automotive fuel.

Irish discovery shows comets gave us life for the crater good

TCD researchers

The Trinity Sudbury Research Group (l-r) Paul Guyett, Edel O’Sullivan, Dr Teresa Ubide and Gavin Kenny, via Edel O’Sullivan

A team of Irish geochemists from TCD went on what could be called the trip of a lifetime to Canada’s Sudbury Basin where they believe they have found likely evidence of what spurred on life itself.

As part of their theory, space debris such as comets and meteorites turned out to be the cooking pots that would create enormous craters, combining space-borne minerals with the right ingredients on Earth to create breeding grounds for life.

These craters would eventually give way to erosion, with the replenishment of nutrients from the surrounding sea ensuing.

“There’s a lot we still don’t fully understand about these little guys, but it looks like we may now be able to form a more coherent story of Earth’s early years”, said one of the geochemists, Gavin Kenny, of their findings.

TCD students build bitcoin poker site to give power back to players

Poker table

Poker table image via Shutterstock

Online poker services are incredibly lucrative in an age when everyone can access vast amounts of data at any one time, and access their online bank accounts, too.

But the problem is that not only is it troublesome for saving money, you could also be at risk of a major data breach having a significant effect on your livelihood.

With this in mind, a group of computer science students from TCD has begun working on a completely decentralised, peer-to-peer poker algorithm that will operate without the need for a trusted-third-party hosting site.

Eamon McNamee, one of the students involved in the site, said of the team’s work: “This idea may have far-reaching implications in other trust-based industries, such as banking, as we have already seen the decentralisation of information transfer and money transfer with technologies like BitTorrent and bitcoin.”

Light up


Light image via Shutterstock

Trinity College Dublin (TCD) physicists studying photonics recently made an enlightening discovery that could have a major impact on the future of fibre-optic communications.

Prof Paul Eastham from TCD’s School of Physics and Prof John Donegan from the CRANN research centre discovered a form of light where the angular momentum could be a fraction rather than a multiple.

Up to this point, 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.

The researchers said the discovery will have a real impact in the areas such as secure optical communications.

“We’re interested in finding out how we can change the way light behaves, and how that could be useful,” explained Eastham.

Beyoncé makes a comeback

Beyoncé horse

Dr Tanya Levingstone, Research Fellow and Honorary Research Lecturer in RCSI with William Lalor, Beyoncé owner and Equine Sports Medicine, with thoroughbred filly, Beyoncé

Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and SFI’s AMBER Centre discovered a new biomaterial that can be used to repair cartilage.

A multi-layered 3D porous scaffold, called ChondroColl, was used to repair damaged knee cartilage on a thoroughbred filly called Beyoncé, allowing her to return to competitive showjumping.

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

It is composed of layers of collagen, hydroxyapatite and hyaluronic acid, and is designed to direct the body’s own cells to regenerate damaged joints.

The next step will be to apply the technology to humans requiring cartilage repair.

The technology is currently being brought to market by RCSI spinout SurgaColl Technologies.

Crystal maze


Scanning electron microscope image of a tiny zircon crystal which formed in the Sudbury impact crater – analysis has shown that the oldest zircons on Earth could have formed in a similar setting. Image via Gavin Kenny

Researchers from TCD were ‘rocking out’ last month, after they discovered where our planet’s oldest rocks – zircon crystals – came from.

The tiny rocks are naturally-occuring and from a time when Earth was very young.

To find out where they came from, Gavin Kenny and his TCD team collected thousands of zircons from the 2bn-year-old Sudbury impact crater in Canada.

The team realised the zircons’ composition was identical to older examples found elsewhere, meaning it’s possible they were deposited during the impact of asteroids billions of years ago – rather than being formed by tectonic plates rubbing together, which was a previous theory.

“There’s a lot we still don’t fully understand about these little guys,” said Kenny. “But it looks like we may now be able to form a more coherent story of Earth’s early years.”

Good job image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic