Prof Pádraig Dunne, School of Physics, University College Dublin, has become the first STEM researcher in Ireland to partner on a European Council Research (ERC) Synergy Grant. A leading spectroscopist in the area of laser plasma emission and absorption spectroscopy, his work has previously been funded through the SFI Principal Investigator grants and IRC PhD scholarships, amongst others.

Prof Dunne is partnering with researchers from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research (Germany), and Queen’s University Belfast, (UK) on this Astrophysics project, How Neutron Star Mergers make Heavy Elements (HEAVYMETAL).

Neutron stars are the remnants of catastrophic stellar core collapse. They have extremely strong gravitational fields, high-density matter, and extraordinary electromagnetic field strengths, making them important natural laboratories for fundamental physics. Merging neutron stars offer these extreme characteristics but in a hot collision where a significant mass of neutron-rich matter is expelled in relativistic outflows. This matter develops as a radioactive fireball, which is visible as a kilonova. Kilonova science is emerging as a new field in astrophysics, offering an enormous discovery space for understanding neutron stars, the origin of the elements, the physics of exotic heavy nuclei, and the phases of hot, ultra-dense, and exotic matter. The increasing sensitivity of gravitational wave detectors, also providing improved sky localisations for follow-up observations, and the next generation of telescopes, means that we expect an abundance of new kilonovae in the coming years.  

HEAVYMETAL aims to make a big step in explaining these explosions of nuclear matter by spectroscopically dissecting kilonovae and connecting them quantitatively to the physical properties of the neutron star merger. In doing so, they will probe the origin of the heavy elements, and delineate the nuclear and astrophysical pathways that created them – the so-called ‘r-process’. The team will try to decipher the details of the observed spectra and use that information to gain unprecedented insight into the physical processes of the merger.  

Prof Dunne: It is a thrill to be part of this fascinating project, funded by the ERC. Since the inception of astrophysics, spectroscopy has made critical contributions to our understanding of remote objects and events in the Universe. Our team in the Spectroscopy Lab at the UCD School of Physics, will use our experience with laser produced plasmas, combined with new and recently developed spectroscopy techniques, to provide fundamental atomic data. The data will make a key contribution to our understanding of Kilonovae and the physics of the formation of the heavy elements.  

One of the nicest aspects of the HEAVYMETAL Synergy award is that we will be working with a diverse team of physicists, each of whom brings something unique, yet essential, to the project. The six -year award gives both the time and the resources to tackle one of the outstanding questions in Astrophysics.

This good news comes shortly after a recent announcement that Prof Martin O’Halloran, Director of the Translational Medical Device Lab at University of Galway, was recently awarded a ERC Consolidator Grant. Prof O’Halloran has previously been awarded a Starting Investigator ERC Research Grant in 2012 for improved technologies for breast cancer detection, and won the €1M SFI Challenge Prize in 2020 for better therapies for chronic pain. He was also awarded SFI Early Career Researcher Award in 2016. Prof Halloran’s ERC supported grant will focus on the treatment and management of the debilitating disease Osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a chronic painful disease, affecting over 400,000 Irish citizens. Current solutions for managing OA pain are limited by both effectiveness and safety, severely affecting the quality of life for OA patients. The ERC project is focused on the development of next-generation pain therapies for these patients, providing long-lasting localised pain-relief, free from the significant side effects of oral medication.

Prof O’Halloran: This is an exciting project, spanning chemistry, biology, and pharmacology, all combined to address the challenge of chronic pain management. I look forward to working with colleagues at University of Galway to ensure the project delivers real impact for osteoarthritis patients."

These recent awards bring our national success in terms of ERC funding to over €35 million from the 2021 ERC Work Programme, a very strong start to the Horizon Europe Framework.

As one of the National Contact Points and the National Delegate for ERC funding in Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) congratulates the awardees and their affiliated institutions on this success in one of the most esteemed competitive programmes worldwide, a success that reflects the health and vitality of the Irish research ecosystem.

Dr Ciarán Seoighe, Deputy Director General of SFI: Many congratulations to both Profs Dunne and O’Halloran on their recent ERC success and indeed to all the awardees across all domains through this ERC work programme. Horizon Europe is a critical part of the funding landscape both nationally and internationally, and we wish applicants every success across Horizon Europe in their future applications.