UCD and QUB researchers get ERC funding to study neutron star collisions

25 Oct 2022

Illustration of light bursting from the collision of two neutron stars. Image: Brian Monroe/NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

Two researchers from UCD and Queen’s are involved the HeavyMetal project, which is looking at how neutron star mergers create heavy elements.

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced the 29 groups that will be backed under the latest Synergy Grant scheme, with total funding of €295m.

The grants help groups of researchers bring together skills, knowledge and resources in one “ambitious” project. The grants are each worth around €10m and are expected to create roughly 1,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff in the winning research teams.

Among the winners is the HeavyMetal project, which involves Prof Padraig Dunne of University College Dublin and Dr Stuart Sim of Queen’s University Belfast.

They are collaborating with researchers in Denmark and Germany to investigate how neutron star mergers create heavy elements. With funding of €11.3m, the team will try to gain unprecedented insight into the physical processes behind these collisions.

Dunne brings expertise in heavy element spectroscopy and the manipulation of laser plasmas to maximise the presence of specific atomic ions, while Sim is an expert in the modelling of radiative transfer for explosive environments.

‘Ambitious and complex scientific problems’

The ERC Synergy Grants aim to support groups of two to four researchers to jointly tackle research problems that could not be addressed by working alone. This year, almost 360 proposals were submitted for the grant call, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon Europe programme.

The 29 winning projects involve 105 principal investigators who will carry out their research at universities and research centres in 19 countries. Germany was the most common location where lead researchers are based, followed by France and Israel.

ERC president Prof Maria Leptin said the Synergy Grant scheme helps to “tap into international talent”, both in Europe and around the world.

“I’m happy to see more pioneering researchers funded to focus on ambitious and complex scientific problems that require innovative ways to advance our knowledge,” Leptin said. “It takes the best researchers, each with unique expertise and approaches, to jointly tackle such challenges.”

European commissioner Mariya Gabriel added that the ERC’s “trademark” is funding individual top researchers, but that certain problems are “too big for the most outstanding minds to address alone”.

“These new grants will enable scientists to join forces and follow their curiosity together across disciplinary boundaries,” Gabriel said. “They are set to gain insights that will help us understand the world around us and to face future challenges.”

At the end of 2020, Ireland received its first ever Synergy Grant from the ERC, thanks to Prof Poul Holm and Prof Francis Ludlow of Trinity College Dublin. These researchers were leading project to assess the importance of marine life to human societies during the last 2,000 years.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic