ERC Grants for Five RWTH Aachen Researchers


Professor Heinz Pitsch, director of the Institute for Combustion Technology at RWTH, Professor Hermann Ney, head of the Chair of Computer Science 6, and Professors Martin Möller and Matthias Wesseling, scientific director and vice scientific director respectively at DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials are each receiving an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council, ERC. Professor Barbara Terhal from the Theoretical Physics Teaching and Research Area is receiving a Consolidator Grant. Additionally, RWTH, represented by Professor Jörg Pretz from the Chair of Experimental Physics III B, is involved as a research institution in the ERC Advanced Grant of Professor Hans Ströher, director of the Jülich Institute for Nuclear Physics.


With the Advanced Grants the European Research Council funds outstanding, established researchers with up to 3.5 million Euros each for a maximum of five years. Consolidator Grants, which come with up to 2.75 million Euros of funding, are awarded to young principal investigators, who have seven to twelve years of experience since completing their PhD. The grants are considered one of the most prestigious funding instruments in Europe. Approximately 15 percent of applicants are awarded a Consolidator Grant. Just under 2000 researchers applied for the ERC Advanced Grant. This year, five Aachen scientists received a grant with RWTH contributing to a sixth grant.

Professor Heinz Pitsch

One of the greatest challenges of our time is the provision of clean energy sources. Although renewable energy continues to make an increasing contribution, current prognoses assume that the energy demand will be met through the combustion of fossil and biogenic fuels in the coming decades. The improvement of turbulent combustion processes is thus an essential factor to a more environmentally compatible energy supply. This has proven difficult, because combustion lives on the interaction of chemical and fluid mechanic processes on a variety of time and length scales, so called multiscales. Relevant phenomena, such as ignition, extinguishment, and pollutant formation are understood and explained with difficulty with the help of elaborate experiments. The goal of Professor Heinz Pitsch’s ERC project is to generate data through numerical simulations of various combustion processes using a high-performance supercomputer. This data is to be then used to analyze physical and chemical processes. The expected result is a multiscale description of technologically relevant combustion processes that can be used in computer simulations to develop and optimize modern combustion systems.

Pitsch completed both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at RWTH Aachen. Afterwards he completed a one-year postdoc stay at UC San Diego. He was a professor at Stanford University from 2003 to 2013 and has been director of the Institute for Combustion Technology at RWTH since 2010.

Professor Hermann Ney

Spoken and written language are the most important foundation for both human communication and the transfer and storage of knowledge and information, especially in the globally networked and multilingual, digital world of today. With the rise of the computer the development of automatic systems for language processing was considered a core task of so-called artificial intelligence. The most successful concepts till now start from the premise that a computer learns using sample data and works with plausibility evaluations instead of pre-determined categorical rules. This is accomplished through processes from statistical decision theory and machine learning, which include artificial neural networks. The RWTH Aachen Chair of Computer Science 6, headed by Professor Hermann Ney, specializes in speech recognition and machine translation. The ERC grant will make it possible to close the research gap between application-oriented projects in language processing and scientific principles. The five-year duration particularly makes it possible to base the many pragmatic approaches of language processing on a broader scientific foundation and to develop new and improved methods.

Ney studied physics at the University of Göttingen and completed his doctoral studies in electrical engineering at TU Braunschweig. He worked at the Philips research labs in Hamburg and Aachen and has been Chair of Computer Science 6: Human Language Technology and Pattern Recognition at RWTH Aachen since 1993. Many research stays have taken him abroad.

Professor Martin Möller

Sophisticated micro- and nano-objects, as well as functional materials, are Martin Möller’s expertise. Within his ERC-funded project, he strives to make an important contribution to the development of gel-based, light-triggered micro-engines, which could be used to develop new self-actuating materials. These materials may be implemented to biomechanically stimulate cells and tissues in biological and medical applications. In addition, the project will be a starting point for the development of gel-based microfluidic pumps and self-actuating swimmers and transporters. For this purpose, Martin Möller and his team of polymer chemists use hydrogels, which contain 80 to 98 percent water. By uptake and release of this water, these hydrogels can significantly change their shape. By using infrared light pulses, Martin Möller and his colleagues were already able to induce transient shape deformations in the gels, leading to fast moving gel architectures with a rate up to 2000 micrometers per second. Within the ERC, Möller aims to obtain fast motion under continuous IR-irradiation by the development of a self-oscillating system with iterative pulsation.

Since 2002, Martin Möller has been head of the Chair of Textile Chemistry and Macromolecular Chemistry at RWTH Aachen University, after being a professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and Ulm University. Since 2003, he has served as the Scientific Director of DWI. In 2003, he was decorated with the Körber European Science Prize. In 2014, the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker awarded him the Hermann-Staudinger prize. His field of research focuses on the synthesis of novel polymers and self-assembly of polymer systems.

Professor Matthias Wessling

Matthias Wessling’s field of research is membrane technology and he is turning Aachen into an internationally leading center for membrane research. Synthetic membranes play an important role in many industrial processes and medical applications, including water desalination, waste water or waste gas treatment, and applications, such as an artificial lung or kidney. Current highly permeable and selective membrane materials can only reach top performance if the transport resistance at the membrane-fluid interface is minimized. Matthias Wessling will use his ERC grant to develop new interaction mechanisms that reduce such transport resistances and improve mass transfer. For this purpose, he will analyze and optimize the membrane surface geometry and chemical structure down to the micro- and nanoscale. In addition, he will engineer the channel structure in membrane set-ups to improve fluid flow. In his project, Wessling will combine classical membrane technology with micro- and nanofluidics, generative nanofabrication, as well as fluid mechanical computer simulations.

Since 2010, Matthias Wessling has headed the Chair of Chemical Process Engineering at RWTH Aachen University and he is the Vice Scientific Director of DWI. He was Senior Research Scientist at Membrane Technology and Research Inc., Menlo Park, CA and head of the Department of Separation Processes at Akzo Nobel. From 2000 to 2010, he was Chair of Membrane Science and Technology at the University of Twente. He joined the DWI scientific board in 2010 and became vice director in 2015.

Professor Barbara Terhal

Scientists have been working on the implementation of the elements for a quantum computer for 20 years. The challenge is that these elements, called quibits, are not as robust as classic bits. The identification and correction of mistakes will be an essential component of storing and manipulating quantum information. Professor Barbara Terhal has been an expert in this field for ten years. The aim of the ERC project “Engineering Quantum Error Correction” is to create a design for the implementation of an error correction mechanism in superconducting qubit systems. The project is expected to lead to new hardware architecture and related strategies for controlling errors.

Terhal studied physics at the University of Amsterdam and subsequently completed her doctorate there. After her doctoral studies she was a research associate at the IBM Research Center and Caltech in the USA. She has been University Professor of Theoretical Physics at the RWTH Faculty of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Natural Science since December 2010.

Professor Hans Ströher

Matter and antimatter simultaneously originated during the formation of the universe – they should have immediately destroyed each other. Why they didn’t remains one of the greatest mysteries in physics. In the project “srEDM” Ströher, together with other scientists from the IKP at Forschungszentrum Jülich, RWTH Aachen, and the University of Ferrara in Italy, is researching the cause of the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe, to which we owe our existence. The physicist hopes to find the cause in charged particles like protons: as a miniscule but measurable imbalance in the distribution of their charge, the so called electric dipole moment. Professor Jörg Pretz from the Chair of Experimental Physics III B at RWTH Aachen, who is also involved in the JARA-FAME research section of the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance, will also be working on the grant. The goal of “srEDM” is to use the Jülich particle collider COSY for the initial measurements. However, to conduct measurements with the greatest precision, a completely new and innovative storage ring is needed, which will be operated with two opposed particle beams. More than 100 researchers from ten countries are working on this project within the JEDI collaboration – Jülich Electric Dipole Investigations – one of the main pillars of JARA-FAME.

Source: Press and Communications