‘The thrill of the hunt of invention is what really drives me’

3 Mar 2021

Prof Niall English. Image: Nick Bradshaw/Fotonic

Lecturer, researcher and entrepreneur Prof Niall English explains how his passion for invention is driving him to push ahead with a second research-led spin-out.

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Following work in gas-storage research for the US government and pharmaceutical R&D in the UK, Prof Niall English returned to his alma mater, University College Dublin (UCD), as a lecturer in 2007. He subsequently rose through the ranks as senior lecturer and now professor in the university’s School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering.

As far as research is concerned, English’s interests lie in nanoscience, energy and materials, and electric-field effects on materials and biological systems. He is particularly interested in water, which is perhaps what led him to co-found AquaB Nanobubble Innovations.

AquaB has developed an energy-efficient way to generate nanobubbles, which could have multiple commercial applications in sectors such as food and agriculture, gas storage, biopharma, brewing, disinfection and wastewater treatment.

The spin-out is English’s second start-up. He also co-founded BioSimulytics in 2019 with UCD colleague Dr Christian Burnham and commercial lead Peter Doyle. Headquartered at NovaUCD, BioSimulytics is developing a software solution to help drug manufacturers save time in identifying the correct crystal structure of a new drug.

English told Siliconrepublic.com more about his new venture, and the challenge of balancing entrepreneurship, research and lecturing.

‘Above all else, I love to invent new things and patent them for technology licensing’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Honestly, as a boy, it was building go-karts, watching MacGyver and helping my father, uncles and grandfathers to fix and build things. That made me become interested in engineering, first and foremost.

I was always trying to invent new things as a kid and my father signed me up to libraries from an early age. I could go after school to read and borrow books about inventions. Then, as I grew older, I became more interested in elucidating molecular fundamentals, and also mathematical modelling and computer simulations.

Above all else, I love to invent new things and patent them for technology licensing. For me, that unexplained observation, the chance of serendipity and the ‘thrill of the hunt’ of invention is what really drives me. I take the journey with an open mind.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Alongside my UCD colleague Dr Mohammad Reza Ghaani, we discovered how to make nanobubbles with far lower energy usage and in an additive-free way. In 2020, we established AquaB to commercialise this new energy-efficient method to generate and release substantial volumes of metastable, nanoscale gas bubbles in water.

My group and I are currently doing a lot of further fundamental and applied research in this area, with further interest in commercialising. Working with UCD’s knowledge transfer team at NovaUCD, we have filed a number of patent applications and incorporated AquaB to commercialise the technology. In addition, last year, we completed the VentureLaunch Accelerator Programme run by NovaUCD and won the prestigious Water Award at the 2020 Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Global Awards.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

A micron is one-millionth of a metre, and micron-sized bubbles are tiny gas bubbles with a diameter of less than 50 microns. They have a number of industrial applications, including in wastewater treatment. However, micron-sized bubbles decrease in size and eventually disappear underwater due to the rapid dissolution of their interior gas, which limits their industrial potential.

Nanobubbles are also tiny gas bubbles but on the nanometre (nm) scale. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre and, for example, a DNA molecule is about 2.5nm wide and a human hair is about 60,000 to 100,000nm wide. In contrast to micron-sized bubbles, nanobubbles are thermodynamically metastable for many months or even longer. They therefore have enhanced gas-transfer properties and greater industrial potential.

The challenge for scientists to date has been the development of easily controlled methods to promote nanobubble formation and nanobubble release. Our discovery of a new energy-efficient method to generate and release substantial volumes of metastable, nanoscale gas bubbles in water, in excess of natural solubility levels, has addressed this challenge.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Our new method of nanobubble generation has multiple commercial applications, including disinfection. It has the potential to boost the ability to store gas directly in aqueous solutions over months. In addition, it has the potential to boost by several-fold dissolved-gas levels, resulting in greater capacities to treat wastewater and also enhance mass transfer in oxygen-limited biochemical and biopharma reactions, such as fermentation processes in the food and brewing industries.

Up to now, it has been energetically expensive to generate nanobubbles, but our electrostriction method makes it two to three orders of magnitude lower in energy compared to forced-convection approaches.

In our method, there are no moving parts nor contamination of water by metal nanoparticles and lubricant traces from moving pump blades, themselves subject to replacement, service and abrasion, fatigue, etc. It’s an operational, performance and maintenance dream!

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher?

Maintaining funding, technology licensing and preserving research infrastructure.

I spend well over a quarter of my working time simply applying for funding. That’s in addition to lecturing, writing and publishing academic papers and articles, preparing material for patent applications and licensing agreements, and on top of my management roles in two spin-out companies.

Gaps in time between funded projects mean that momentum is lost in a particular research direction. As well as that, work involving molecular fundamentals, which is one of my key research areas, is much harder to get funded in Ireland.

As Edison said, invention is 1pc inspiration, 99pc perspiration. It is a tough game, and not for the faint-hearted. That said, I thoroughly enjoy working as a lecturer, researcher, innovator and entrepreneur.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Field-driven crystallisation and energy-conversion processes. External electric fields, for instance, can alter both the thermodynamic and kinetic landscape of phase-change and energy-transfer processes, eg solar conversion, crystal growth and nucleation in energy-efficient ways to help boost their performance and productivity. I have been carrying out research along this general theme for over 20 years.

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