Dr Rohit Pillai awarded €1.5 million European Research Council Starting Grant

Dr Rohit Pillai is the recipient of a European grant which funds researchers of any nationality to run cutting-edge research projects across Europe.

Dr Pillai, Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, is one of 400 researchers to have won this year’s European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants. The total funding of the program is worth €628 million and is part of the Horizon Europe programme. 

The ERC Starting Grant program helps excellent new scientists, who have two to seven years’ experience after their PhDs, to launch their own projects, form their teams, and pursue their most promising ideas. The grants will be invested in scientific projects spanning all disciplines of research from engineering to life sciences to humanities. The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research.

NANO-COOL project

Dr Pillai, who is based at the Institute for Multiscale Thermofluids, will study how heat is transported at the point where a heated ‘nanomaterial’, such as graphene, meets a cooling liquid such as water. The goal is to leverage the insights gained to better design next generation engineering devices.

While heat transfer at a generic solid/liquid interface is a fundamental problem of interest in multiple scientific disciplines, the last decade and a half has seen renewed focus on this topic due to the emergence of novel nanomaterials with unique thermal properties, such as ultrahigh thermal conductivity. These nanomaterials can, in theory, drastically improve how we cool devices. Limitations in our understanding of nanoscale interfacial heat transfer – where the nanocoating or nanostructure meets the coolant liquid and where the liquid meets its vapour – in experiments has prevented this from being realised. Current computational approaches are inadequate as they cannot capture the physics involved so new ideas are needed.

New computational tools 

NANO-COOL aims to bridge this gap by developing a new computational toolkit comprising state-of-the-art methods such as machine learning, ab-initio and classical molecular dynamics, and continuum-based multiphysical modelling. This toolkit will help pinpoint the roots of the heat transfer enhancement observed when deploying nanomaterials and rationalise the underlying physical mechanisms. It will also help identify candidate nanomaterials with greatest cooling potential – as well as design new nanomaterials – which can then be validated by experiments.

Project impact 

Electronic devices are essential to our technological infrastructure, but shrinking sizes and rising power densities has made heat dissipation a bottleneck for future improvements. Extreme heat fluxes are generated at hot spots, comparable to the surface of the sun. The ubiquity of electronics means that many diverse areas are simultaneously impacted, such as developing high-performance batteries for electric vehicles; building larger supercomputers and data centres; or even sending complex payloads into space. 

Current thermal management systems are both inadequate and inefficient, requiring vast natural resources. NANO-COOL could pave the way for high-performing yet energy-efficient thermal management, to sustain economic growth without exacerbating climate change.

Dr Pillai commented:

“I really am delighted to have been awarded the ERC Starting Grant. For an early-career researcher such as myself, it represents a unique opportunity to pursue a high-risk, high-reward research program for 5 years. I appreciate the ERC's support.

I would like to thank my academic colleagues and administrative staff for their feedback on my proposal as well as assistance with the interview preparation. The proposed research builds on years of foundational work, in which numerous collaborators and postgraduate researchers have played a significant role.”

Professor Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council, added:

“It is part of our mission to give early-career talent the independence to pursue ambitious curiosity driven research that can shape our future. Congratulations and good luck on your path to discovery.”

Related links