Over 6 million euros to projects on turbulence, neural networks and Majorana particles

February 27, 2020

TU/e to lead three research consortia and play a key role in another.

Study on collective metastasis is one of the projects involving TU/e researchers funded by NWO Groot.
Study on collective metastasis is one of the projects involving TU/e researchers funded by NWO Groot.

Designing turbulent flows, machine-learning based neural networks and the search for Majorana particles are among the research topics that receive a significant NWO GROOT grant, each worth well over 2 million euros. Next to these three, which will be led by Eindhoven University of Technology, a fourth consortium will involve considerable contributions from Eindhoven researchers.

Shaping turbulence with smart particles

The first TU/e-led project aims to shape turbulence in fluids. Turbulence is everywhere (think of fast flowing rivers or smoke from a chimney), but is very hard to manipulate or control, because it tends to rapidly return to its original (statistically similar at every point and same in all directions) state, especially at small scales.

Taking inspiration from nature, such as the dynamics of pollen, bacteria and algae, the researchers are looking into ways of designing turbulent flows by introducing so-called ‘smart’ particles. Due to their complex shape or magnetic properties, these particles have the ability to influence the flow in very specific regions. 

According to Federico Toschi of the Department of Applied Physics, who is leading this innovative project, the industrial potential of techniques that allow flows to be made either more or less turbulent are immense. Possible application areas include industrial processing, energy production, chemical engineering, and food processing. Other TU/e researchers involved in this project are Herman Clercx and Rudie Kunnen.

Unraveling neural networks

The second TU/e-led project receiving a GROOT grant aims to develop a better understanding of neural networks. Machine learning using neural networks is revolutionizing our daily lives – such as automating highly complex tasks like speech recognition or automotive transport - but is still poorly understood from a theoretical point of view. This severely limits the full potential of machine learning-based neural networks, according to Wil Schilders of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, who is leading the project.

In order to take the leap from engineering success to scientific innovation, the project will take several approaches, bringing together mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, and astronomers. Together the researchers will try to get a better understanding of neural networks, both by integrating specific domain knowledge into them, and by designing methods that can extract meaning from them. Within this project, TU/e is involved in four subprojects, three from the faculty of Mathematics, and one from the faculty of Physics. Other TU/e researchers involved in this project are Barry Koren, Federico Toschi and Jim Portegies.

Phase Changes for Topological Insulators

The third TU/e led project receiving a GROOT grant will focus on higher-order topological materials that could help in exposing the elusive Majorana particles – a promising building block for a quantum computer. A topological insulator, which is one of the most exciting findings in condensed matter physics, is a material that is insulating in the bulk or interior, yet conductive at the surface or edge.

The principle aim of the project is to show a first-of-its-kind phase transition from a topological crystalline insulator (TCI) to a higher-order topological insulator (HOTI) where the conductive surface states will move to the edges or corners of the insulator. SnTe nanowires, the TCIs in this study, will be changed into HOTIs using symmetry breaking. This will involve the selective application of an electric field to the nanowire or the growth of lattice-mismatched sidewalls.

The group of Erik Bakkers in the Department of Applied Physics and project lead, will be working on the growth of the crystalline structures. The study will explore if Majorana quasiparticles and parafermions form at the interface between HOTIs and superconductors, and study their properties. Results from this project can have implications for future quantum computing technologies.

More information about the work of Erik Bakkers can be found in this longread.

Deciphering the Collective Behavior of Cancer Cells

TU/e researchers will also be involved in a GROOT-funded project led by Leiden University that focuses on investigating the process of metastasis, which is the ability for cancer cells to ignore tissue boundaries, and move to surrounding tissues or other organs. There is considerable evidence to suggest that metastasis occurs in clusters of cancer cells, rather than individual cells. Currently, the advantage of this collective behavior is poorly understood.

TU/e researchers will contribute to the project in two different ways. First, Liesbeth Janssen and Kees Storm (Applied Physics) will work on the development of cell-resolved modelling and analytical models to study the collective behavior of cancer cells. Parameters for cell-cell interactions and tumor properties will be provided by experimental results. Second, Jaap den Toonder (Mechanical Engineering) will develop microfluidic chips that allow for the in vitro study of spreading of tumor cells in tunable microenvironments. Collaboration with the numerical work of Janssen and Storm will aid in the design of the microfluidic systems. All findings will also be tested and compared with in vivo experiments.  


In the NWO Open Competition Domain Science - GROOT researchers can apply as a part of a consortium for curiosity-driven, fundamental research in the research fields of the NWO Domain Science. The call is published once every two years. For an initial 92 proposals, more than 47 million euros will be split across 20 successful consortia.

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