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European Research Council awards outstanding University of Freiburg researchers with “ERC Grants” amounting to more than 5 million euros

Three researchers from the University of Freiburg, Wilfried Weber, Wolfram Burgard and Florian Mintert, have been awarded one of the most prestigious grants in Europe: the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded the scientists “ERC Grants” totalling more than five million euros. Prof. Katrin Wendland from Augsburg who has also been awarded an “ERC Grant”, has just been appointed professor in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Freiburg.

The EU programme enables outstanding scientists to carry out new research projects. The rector of the University of Freiburg, Prof. Dr. Hans-Jochen Schiewer, is delighted with this success: “The fact that Dr. Wolfgang Burgard, who was recently awarded the Leibniz Prize, has now also been awarded an ERC Grant, shows that our researchers have a high profile. I am particularly happy with the awards given to Prof. Weber and Dr. Mintert since these two researchers work at new institutions that we have established in Freiburg as part of the German government’s excellence initiative.”

Funded researchers and projects:

1. Prof. Dr. Wilfried Weber, biologist at the Centre for Biological Signalling Studies (BIOSS), has received an ERC Starting Grant totalling 1.49 million euros for research in the field of synthetic biology.

Prof. Wilfried Weber’s team is developing a new generation of interactive materials that react specifically to a broad range of environmental signals. In an interdisciplinary approach, the researchers combine synthetic biology and material science methods: synthetic biology provides a large number of signal sensors that are processed into interactive biohybrid materials using macromolecular chemistry methods. These materials have a promising application spectrum as components of sensors used in analytical systems, adaptive matrices for the regeneration of tissue or intelligent implants for the release of drugs, for example.

Weber’s research is part of the Centre for Biological Signalling Studies (BIOSS) and the Freiburg-based Centre for Interactive Materials and Bioinspired Technologies (FIT), and forms a bridge between these two research priorities in Freiburg.

2. Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard, Institute for Computer Science, Research Laboratory for Autonomous Intelligent Systems at the University of Freiburg, has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant totalling around 2.5 million euros for his project "Reliable Lifelong Navigation for Mobile Robots".

How can one construct mobile robots that are able to navigate fully autonomously and operate over long periods of time in complex and dynamic application scenarios? This is one of the key issues addressed by the LifeNav project. Over the last few years, it has only been possible to use fully autonomous robots for relatively short periods of time or if they had stored comprehensive background knowledge, i.e. if vehicles knew the GPS coordinates of the waypoints on their route or if they had stored a complete map of their environment. LifeNav seeks to investigate different issues on the basis of ten “challenges” envisaged to lead to a quantum leap in the reliability of autonomous robots.

One of these challenges is the improved perception of the three-dimensional environment. LifeNav is focusing on the ability to reliably recognise objects, thereby enabling robots to better understand their environment and react more quickly to changes. The robots will also be taught how humans navigate. The goal of the project is to enable robots to automatically recognise and use pedestrian routes in order to reach their destination more effectively. Another aspect of LifeNav focuses on adaptive capacity and learning. Current-day robots start the learning processes from the beginning when they are faced with a new task. They are unable to accumulate knowledge over longer periods of time and use it to improve their performance. The LifeNav team will consist of Wolfram Burgard and two experienced scientists who will work with three doctoral students to find solutions to the aforementioned problems. The team’s goal is to construct a mobile, autonomous robot that will be able to “walk” up Schauinsland mountain hiking trails.

3. Dr. Florian Mintert, physicist and Junior Fellow of the FRIAS School of Soft Matter Research has been awarded an ERC Starting Grant totalling around 1.17 million euros to continue his research into the "Optimal dynamic control of quantum mechanical entanglement".

Quantum mechanical objects such as atoms or photons can have two or more properties simultaneously, while classical systems cannot have two or several mutually exclusive properties. For example, a single photon can consist of two components where one component heads to the left and the other to the right. One or more photons can consist of two components, which is generally described as an entangled state, in which all photons head either to the left or right. This means that all photons have an uncertain course. However, as soon as the course is determined for any one of these photons through measurements, all other photons will follow in the same direction. It is very difficult to experimentally investigate these entangled states as very small disturbances tend to determine the course of the photons.

The ERC-funded project “Optimal dynamic control of quantum mechanical entanglement” will therefore focus on how robust, entangled states can be produced. While current projects concentrate on turning a system into a specific entangled state, Mintert’s new project focuses on manipulating quantum mechanical multi-particle systems in a way that leads to the maximisation of the so-called entanglement measure. Since this can be achieved with a broad range of different states, the system can “choose” whether it assumes the state that is most robust and characterised by the desired entanglement properties.

ERC Grants
The sole ERC Grant selection criterion is the scientific excellence of the applicants, which is evaluated in two phases. Of almost 2900 Starting Grant applications submitted in three disciplines (life sciences, physical sciences and engineering as well as social sciences and humanities), the European Research Council selected 427 projects, including 67 from Germany, to receive funding.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Wilfried Weber
Centre for Biological Signalling Studies (BIOSS) 
and Institute of Biology II
Tel.: +49 (0)761 203 97654
E-mail: wilfried.weber(at)bioss.uni-freiburg.de

Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard
Technical Faculty
Institute for Computer Science
Tel.: +49 (0)761/203-8026
E-mail: burgard(at)informatik.uni-freiburg.de

Dr. Florian Mintert
FRIAS (School of Soft Matter Research) 
and Institute of Physics
Tel.: +49 (0)761 203 5948
E-mail: florian.mintert(at)physik.uni-freiburg.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/european-research-council-awards-outstanding-university-of-freiburg-researchers-with-erc-grants-amou