Big Ideas for the Future

Delivering a healthy future

Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing has made a number of breakthroughs:

  • A new way of taking medication that avoids the need to swallow large pills, which can be a particular problem for elderly patients
  • Responsive hydro-gels for dermal applications such as chronic wound healing
  • Discovery of the most widely used drug for managing insulin resistance in the treatment of diabetes
  • Development of implantable lenses that can restore focus in ageing eyes.

What problem does this research seek to solve?

As people live longer, their medical needs change. Academic researchers and health care professionals need to work together to look at the challenges that this will bring to healthcare, with the aim of discovering new ways of treating conditions associated with the ageing process and also to develop preventative strategies that people can adopt now in their everyday lives to halt the onset of age-related diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

How will it make a difference in the future?

The Office of National Statistics predicts that in the UK by 2034, 23% of the population will be aged 65 and over compared to 18% under 16. The United Nation’s Word Population Ageing 2050 Report states that by 2050, 21% of the world’s population will be over 60. Aston is rising to the challenge of sustaining an ageing population and has created a research centre – Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing - to undertake innovative, multidisciplinary research in this area.

Further details

The mission of Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing is to facilitate research that helps understand, predict and prevent age-related degeneration, with a specific focus on the eye, the mind, the metabolism and healing in the context of the psychological, social and policy factors affecting ageing lives.

Contact: Dr Roslyn Bill or Wendy Overton on 0121 204 4134 or at lhs_archa@aston.ac.uk

Getting around: our planet, and beyond

DraysonRacing and Aston University have launched a major partnership to develop and demonstrate low carbon automotive technologies. The partnership will investigate ‘second generation’ biofuels to create high performance cars with reduced CO2 emissions. The biofuels will be produced from waste biomass such as straw, wood and sewage sludge, removing reliance on dedicated food crops. Aston University’s expertise in low carbon and sustainable research includes involvement in the UK’s largest study into long-term low carbon vehicle use, investigating the performance of fuel cells, electric, and hydrogen power cars. The University’s European Bioenergy Research Institute(EBRI) is a world leader in biofuels and biomass research. Current projects include the transformation of algae, wood waste and sewage sludge into new forms of energy. Aston’s Polymer, Bioenergy, Mechanical Engineering, Photonics and Computer Science research groups will all be working with Drayson Racing.

What problem does this research seek to solve? 

Next generation biofuels are seen as providing one of the cost effective way of reducing CO2 emissions of internal combustion engines over the next two decades.  Drayson Racing has pioneered the use of second-generation cellulosic bio-ethanol in motor racing for over four years. The Drayson Racing and Aston University partnership will in particular investigate; The production of ‘second generation’ biofuels from sources such as organic waste; Improving the stability and reliability of ‘second generation’ biofuel; Enhancing the ability of high performance engines to optimise performance; Developing materials for use in fuel pumps and other areas which are capable of surviving a highly aggressive biofuel environment.

How will it make a difference in the future?

The extreme conditions experienced in motor racing offering an exciting platform for developing this low carbon technology to a wider audience. Reducing vehicle emissions is one of the critical challenges of the next 20 years. Road transport accounts for 25 to 35% of CO2 emissions in developed countries, and the major source of these emissions is private cars. We are keen to apply track developments to novel products that will improve the performance of future vehicles while reducing their carbon impact.

Further details

Contact: Dr Philip Davies, Associate Dean of Research, School of Engineering & Applied Science


People and environment: sustainability for the next century and beyond

Aston’s work on developing biofuels from carbon containing waste materials in the European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) promises to provide an important breakthrough in the quest to produce really sustainable, clean, and reliable power from new sources. EBRI’s new £16.5m laboratories, which include a biomass fuelled power plant, will play a key role in showcasing and developing new renewable technologies to industry that could even see future Cities powered by their own waste materials.

What problem does this research seek to solve?

Bioenergy is a key element of the UK achieving its EU Renewable Energy Directive- a target of 15 per cent of energy from renewable by 2020. Renewable heat and in particular bioenergy are expected to play a key role of up to 30 per cent of the target in addition to wind, solar and tidal power.

How will it make a difference in the future?

EBRI is working with a range of leading companies to develop alternative energy solutions, including Severn Trent Water, in a project to transform sewage sludge into energy and collaboration with Johnson Matthey to transform gases into fuels for heat and power engines. The team is also developing a further ‘mini power plant’ in conjunction with the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to help tackle the problem of unreliable energy supplies in rural India and help end fuel poverty.

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills placed the global biomass market at £144 billion in 2008/09. The same report suggests the UK biomass market value is £5.2 billion with an expectation of an annual growth rate of 4.3% for the next 5/6 years.

Further details

Due to open on Aston’s campus in October 2012, the fully operational demonstrational facility, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Advantage West Midlands and Aston University, will include giant photo bioreactors harnessing algae, and a 0.4MWel small scale industrial power plant fuelled by biomass. The Plant will generate heat and power from using algae, sewage sludge, wood and agricultural waste as sources of fuel. It will also generate biomass by-products including hydrogen power for low carbon vehicles or fuel cells and Biochar for use as an agricultural fertiliser and a source for decentralised hydrogen production. A long-term research ambition is to create a ‘thermal ring’ of small scale industrial power plants around Birmingham. This could divert biodegradable waste away from landfill and incineration and feed energy back into the National Grid.

Contact: ProfessorAndreas Hornung, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Head of the European BioenergyResearch Institute (EBRI)  

The creation of recreation; how we’ll use our leisure time in fifty years

Regular exercise improves cardiovascular health. With an ageing population and sedentary lifestyles, active living and lifelong participation in sport has never been more important. Football is the national game and is endlessly adaptable, but the number of men playing falls off dramatically from the early 30s and older men have little involvement in team sport or aerobic exercise. With the baby boom generation in middle age, can football be made accessible for the over 50s and contribute to healthier lifestyles?

Football is an unexploited opportunity to improve health in this population and this research will compare the health of those men who play football to those who don’t.

What problem does this research seek to solve?

  • Can recreational football (‘football training’) be enjoyed by men over 50?
  • Will there be significant health and well-being benefits?
  • Will recreational football be sustainable in the way that other physically demanding activities appear not to be?

How will it make a difference in the future?

Across Europe, 17% of male deaths, the biggest proportion, are due to diseases of the cardiovascular system, with ischaemic heart disease the biggest cause of death under 75 (White and Cash, 2004).  

Physical activity is a major prevention contributor of many chronic diseases and reduced physical activity significantly increases the risk exercise of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Recreational football is social and absorbing to play to the extent that participants are under aware of the effort that they exert. These advantages suggest that older people might commit to recreational football within their age group in a more sustainable way than the revolving door of gym membership.

Further details

Contact: Pete Reddy from the School of Life & Health Sciences

The future of humanity and society

The philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt once said that ‘every language is like a window that gives a unique view of the world. When the window closes it is lost forever’. In order to solve the world’s problems of the future we depend on more than just one point of view, we need every ‘window’ possible. Linguists at Aston University are working with language activists and communities to analyse the developments in the field of minority languages and to observe the links between language and social change.

What problem does this research seek to solve?

The many visions of life that come from the many thousands of languages still spoken by humankind are rapidly being diminished. Experts predict that over the next 100 years nearly 90% of the worlds languages will be lost – consigned to the history books and squeezed out by globalisation, the advance of monolithic languages such as English and Mandarin, and the belief that to speak and think in a ‘minority’ languages is somehow backward looking or old fashioned.

How will it make a difference in the future?

If a language only spoken in the Amazonian rainforest disappears, it might not seem significant. But with the language, a rich knowledge of medicine might disappear that comes from a close relationship with nature. If a language such as Yiddish becomes restricted to fewer places or domains, then the philosophy and thinking, literature, art and music related to the speech community begins to perish.

No one is actively campaigning for languages to die, but sometimes well meaning policy makers, teachers, even language activists can unwittingly aid the process. By promoting ‘minority’ languages for example for  tourism purposes as part of a bye-gone era, these languages are in danger to go the way of the steam train or the horse cart. Young people see them as lacking relevance, and whilst campaigns such as this might help build an image, which can be exploited economically the language concerned might lose its status as a relevant means of communication. Welsh is an example where a sizeable community has decided that their language matters, and couple with legislation, have made it central to the regeneration of Wales.

Further details

Research into minority languages, language maintenance and shift is situated at the Aston Centre for Interdisciplinary Research into Language and Diversity (InterLanD). InterLanD brings together linguistic, social, cultural, economic, environmental, political, management and marketing perspectives to pursue the following main questions:

  • How can we learn to live with differences?
  • What shapes identities in diverse societies?
  • How does social diversity impact on service-delivery and policy development?
  • What can international comparisons teach us about living with diversity?
  • How can we harness diversity in work and market places?

Contact: Professor GertrudReershemius on ext 0121 204 3787