The goal of enhanced integration between the European Union and the Russian Federation was significantly advanced by a series of three linked EU-Russian research projects.
With matching funding provided from the EU and the Russian Federation, the three projects focused on a work programme entitled "Nanostructured Sensors". As well as creating mutual benefit through increased co-operation in teaching and research, including both short and long term exchanges of researchers, the aim was also to optimise the added-value for both sides of their respective specialist expertise and to realise the commercial potential such elite collaboration could produce.
SAWHOT was a project which aimed to develop a new generation of Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW) sensors, able to operate wirelessly in harsh environments and measure extreme temperatures. High-temperature processes in a range of activities, such as energy transformation in power stations, industry and traffic, are estimated to be responsible for some 85% of man-made CO2 emissions. The newly developed SAW sensor technology can play a crucial role in detecting inefficiencies or faults in these processes and enabling improvements. It could potentially, therefore, play an important role in reducing emissions. Special SAW devices able to withstand extremes of cold offer new functionality in situations where sensors need to be buried in the permafrost, to the benefit of the oil and gas drilling industry.
At the heart of the project was a newly developed advanced material known as Langasite, produced by one of the Russian partners, FOMOS-Materials. With a melting point of 1,470°C, and stable up to 1,000°C, Langasite offers a greatly enhanced potential compared with lithium niobate, the traditionally used material, which starts to become unstable at 300°C. The SAWHOT consortium carried out successful laboratory tests using Langasite to temperatures up to 900°C, while tests at end-user pilot plants (carbon nanotube manufacturing) yielded encouraging results to around 700°C.
The INGENIOUS project focused on developing a sensor capable of detecting toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene and xylene. Since these substances, which are widely used in the petrochemical industry, are toxic even at parts-per-billion concentrations, it is important to be able to detect and measure them not only at trace levels, but also within atmospheres which may contain complex mixtures of other gases as well. All this has to be done at low cost, to enable widespread use.
The INGENIOUS consortium succeeded in developing a novel sensor which uses a dye, produced by one of the Russian partners, the Photochemistry Centre of the Russian Academy of Science, which changes fluorescent properties when it encounters any of the target substances – with each substance identified by a different colour "fingerprint". The sensor, which uses special nanostructures to enhance its sensitivity, was particularly successful at detecting toluene and xylene at the required parts-per-billion concentration. Benzene detection at the required level was also possible, although further work is still needed. As a result of the progress made, a spin-off company is to be created in Russia to take the sensor to the next stage of development.
S3 was a project which addressed society's need to develop a better capability to detect toxic, dangerous and explosive gases in the environment. This is a clear need in a range of situations, including aeronautics, homeland security and the chemical industries. The widespread and diverse range of applications for this technology mean that it needs to be available at as low a cost as possible and in as portable a form as possible – while at the same time still performing to a high level of capability.
As the name of the project implies, the S3 consortium focused on developing materials which possessed the "three S's" of gas sensing – high sensitivity, selectivity, and long-term stability. For this reason, its research concentrated on metal oxide (MOX) gas sensors, making use of specially engineered semiconductor nanowires. Significant progress was achieved not only in developing sensors with the required capability, but also in achieving miniaturisation and reduced power consumption. As a result of the advances made by S3, a number of further research initiatives and spin-off ventures have been pursued both in Europe and the Russian Federation.
Building on a long history of research co-operation between Russia and Europe, the three linked projects, SAWHOT, INGENIOUS and S3, successfully brought together the distinctive expertise of both sides to produce results that neither side could have achieved on its own. In addition to the tangible results of each individual project and the associated commercial and competitive benefits, the co-operation left another equally important legacy. This took the form of a continuing and deep-rooted collaboration between universities and research institutes from Europe and Russia, including the development of shared online tutorials and the establishment of Joint Doctoral Degrees (in S3) – bringing the two sides ever closer together in productive partnership for the future.