Australian Synergy Grant awarded to UofA Professor

Prof. Volker Hessel

Congratulations to Professor Volker Hessel for becoming one of the first recipients of the Australian Synergy Grant.

The following interview has been taken from the EURAXESS Australia and New Zealand quarterly newsletter, Issue 1. 


"Professor Volker Hessel from the University of Adelaide and three principal investigators, as an international team, have won an AU$16 million ERC Synergy Grant (which is part of the European Union’s research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020). Prof. Hessel achieved this while still in Europe and does it now in a part-time capacity at the University of Warwick in England. The SCOPE project (Surface-COnfined fast-modulated Plasma for process and Energy intensification in small molecules conversion) will investigate how new kinds of plasma and their symbiotic interaction with proprietary catalysts can be harnessed to transform the production of fertilisers. Prof. Hessel will focus on how disruptive production concepts can lead to entirely new business cases, which may induce industrial transformation on a scale which extends beyond the chemical industry to agriculture and farming. In a more far-fetched scenario, the technology could be even used to grow food on Mars, as it is compact, uses green energy from the Sun, and only requires nitrogen and water as the hydrogen source.

Could you please give us some insights on how you decided to pursue this opportunity?
Prof. Hessel: I was very lucky to have been awared previous ERC and Research Excellence Grants, including ERC Advanced, ERC Proof of Concept, and FET Open. The only ERC grant that I had not been awarded before 2018 was the Synergy Grant. I love its concept of achieving excellence through teamwork. It is great that the EU provides such outstanding opportunity for groundbreaking idea development. That is where real opportunities start, which do not just optimise industrial processes, but bring them to an entirely new level and transform the global business landscape. That is where science is reinvented, new capabilities are created and packaged into a system, which is unseen so far.

You will be working with principal investigators from Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK who will bring together different skills and resources to tackle this ambitious research project. How did you choose who to collaborate with?
Prof. Hessel: I like the ERC Synergy idea of a team working in perfect harmony and symbiosis – every team member is indispensable, and the best in his/her field. A team with aspriations that go beyond any single researcher’s capability. Thus, I was looking for ‘the best’ who would also be perfect team mates. And that alone was not even enough! Those single points of excellence needed to be supplementary and form a ‘higher hierarchy’ of excellence on a systemic level. A great choir is needed, and not solely a band of great singers.

For the first time under the 2019 Work Programme, researchers from Australia and New Zealand were able to avail research funding through ERC Synergy Grants. What do you think are the benefits of applying for these funding (in addition to the availability of financial resources)?
Prof. Hessel: Fundamental, groundbreaking ideas hardly ever generate commercial success in a straight mode and in their own right. Rather, they slowly yet massively create ‘public goods’ as strong multipliers for widespread national valorisation and technology proliferation; the Apollo 11 moon landing was such a public good. Thus, the ERC Synergy Grants inspire Australian researchers to explore multiple business opportunities, Australia-wide, rather than aim for a single innovation or patent. They can also apply for an Australian ARC Laureate Grant (ca. €2.5 million, $A4 million) in recognition of outstanding excellence. This covers capacity building (team, equipment) and the performance of world-class research – everything a scientist dreams of. Yet, it creates more value than the simplistic cash argument. The ERC collaboration also helps to shape the research of Australian researchers by learning concepts from their counterparts on another continent. Internationalisation is the key word here. They will boost their reputation globally. In addition, the Australian researchers can widen their scope in systems science, which also widens their ‘capability track record’. They can commence entirely new research fields by merging with their partners’ research. ERC Synergy is not just a high-volume fund, it is a wonderful research endeavour and training on the highest level.

Do you have any suggestion/advice for Australian researchers (at any stage of their career) on how to go about applying for European funding?
Prof. Hessel: I think the research services at Australia’s major universities are well prepared for helping their best researchers to get a European grant. Yet, this might not be the first priority in their daily business. The Australian researchers should be proactive and seek their advice. It is about becoming aware that a unique opportunity is now open, which has not been seen in the two decades of EU-Australia relations.

This is one of the first time an Australian university (i.e. the University of Adelaide) has been awarded an ERC Synergy Grant. What do you think are the barriers to the participation of Australian researchers in these grant applications?
Prof. Hessel: It is the ‘unknown’ and the fact that it is so new. Most Australian researchers are simply so busy with their own grants that they hardly have time to familiarise themselves with the European options. Actually, it is easy for them in the ERC Synergy case, since the coordinator will come from Europe and the major workload will fall on him/her. The European idea of amalgamating the individual researchers into a ‘whole’ may take some getting used to for Australian researchers who are accustomed to having less tight interwoven chief investigator roles."

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