skip to content

Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory
From top left, clockwise: Sian Dutton, the Maxwell Centre, the Winton programme for the Physics of Sustainability logo, Prof. Richard Friend

When the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability was established in 2011 through the donation of £20 million from David Harding, the aim was bold and timely: to support fundamental research that underpins new technologies that can  impact how we manage our fragile ecosystems.

Ten years later, as the UK hosts COP26 and ascends to the G7 Presidency, the need to harness fundamental science to overcome depleting natural resources, increased pollution and climate change is more critical than ever.

This October we also welcome the next generation of Winton PhD Scholars to the Department, an opportunity to revisit the last 10 years of the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability.

Investing in early-stage research and researchers

Since 2011, the urgency to take action against climate change has become policy for the governments of many nations, currently enshrined in the 2019 amendment to the UK’s Climate Change Act that requires net greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to zero by 2050. This goal necessarily requires an 85 % reduction in emissions by 2035, a milestone only fourteen years away. This task in 2021 remains as formidable as ten years ago, but significant progress continues to be made: industrialisation at scale has brought wind and solar electricity costs to match those from fossil fuel generation, and electric car prices are ever-decreasing.

Over the past ten years, the Winton Programme has supported research in an extraordinarily broad range of topics, some with well-established connections to sustainability, and others seeding new exciting research areas, the impact of which will be revealed in the future.

Given that there is a global skills gap in researchers exploring the technologies needed for a sustainable future, the Winton Programme has placed most of its investments in early-stage researchers through the Winton Scholars PhD programme, the Winton Advanced Research Fellows, funding recently-appointed lecturers, and two Harding Lectureships, to which Dr Chiara Ciccarelli and Dr Akshay Rao have been appointed.

Not only has the Winton Programme championed schemes to attract new researchers and engage existing ones to the topic of sustainability, schemes such as the tremendously successful exchange programme with the Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute at UC Berkeley, and the award of pump-prime funding to seed innovative high-risk high-impact projects, have been used to support new research directions and collaborations to expand sustainability research across the University.

A Director’s vision

Professor Sir Richard Friend, the Director of the Winton Programme from 2011 to 2020, was instrumental in establishing the model by which the Winton Programme would operate. Richard’s vision was to ensure that David Harding’s donation would reach widely across the Cavendish Laboratory and draw in strong and lasting collaborations across the University. Given that sustainability is a challenge across many science disciplines, Richard championed the Winton Programme’s grand objective of supporting new science to address real and practical challenges under a very broad agenda of “sustainability,” particularly through bottom-up initiatives driven by Winton Fellows and Scholars, and staff across the Department and beyond.  

During Richard’s directorship the programme pushed forward a broad renewable energy research agenda, including exploration of interface phenomena in solid-state batteries, hybrid photovoltaics, and energy harvesting materials systems. Several Departmental links with the life sciences emerged through projects such as the investigation of coherent quantum mechanical phenomena in photosynthesis, and the development of DNA nanotechnology for building sensors, nanopores, and ion-channels.  

The support from David Harding also enabled the University to secure government funding for the construction of the Maxwell Centre, an ambitious project under Richard’s leadership, which is now thriving as the University’s interface with industry. The Maxwell Centre hosts a broad variety of research groups and companies, and is home to many innovative programmes in areas of sustainability, including Cambridge Zero (the University’s zero-carbon initiative), The Henry Royce Institute (enabling academic and industry access to state-of-the-art equipment to explore energy materials challenges), and the University’s Energy Transitions interdisciplinary research centre (bringing together academic, industry and government collaborators to explore activities to accelerate the UK’s energy transition away from fossil fuels).

Dr Siân Dutton, whose research interests are in the area of sustainable energy storage, took over Directorship of the Winton Programme from Richard Friend in 2020. Siân was awarded a Winton Advanced Fellowship early on in the Programme in 2012, before being appointed Lecturer in Physics and Solid State Chemistry in 2015, and promoted to Reader in 2017. Siân’s interdisplinary research programme in functional energy materials seeks to understand and improve materials for rechargeable batteries, low temperature magnetic cooling and hybrid perovskites for optoelectronic applications. The 10 years she has been based in the Cavendish Laboratory have expanded her research horizons and ideas far beyond those initially proposed in her Winton Fellowship.

Under Sian’s direction, the annual Winton Symposium will return in its much-loved format in March 2022, after a short hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Over the years the event has become established as the Department’s annual forum for a broad and enthusiastic international community to come together to engage on topics of energy, sustainability and resource-efficiency. This autumn the Winton Programme will also seek applications for Winton Scholarships for the 2022 cohort and a further round of the Winton-Berkeley exchange.

Bright young scientist making an impact 

2020 saw a 7 % fall in CO2 emissions due to the sudden drop-in human activity during the global coronavirus pandemic. However, this only translates into a 0.01 % reduction in CO2 levels, a temporary blip in steadily increasing global temperatures. It is expected that post-pandemic activity will resume to almost the same level as in 2019, demonstrating that it is vital for action to continue at an increased pace in the coming years in order to achieve the ambitious goal of net-zero emissions, and to usher in an era of sustainable and resource-efficient human activity.

Our nine new Winton Scholars, Cullen Chosy, Nicholas Popiel, Zhengkang Qu, Pin Yu Chu, Camilla Tacconis, Mahmoud Elshenawy, Lorenzo Peri, Rokas Elijosius and Ayan Rakshit, will all pursue their PhD projects on a wide range of topics, from sustainable drug design to new materials for rechargeable batteries, but with a common ambition: to explore basic science that can generate the new technologies and new industries needed to achieve the sustainability agenda and transform the world.

For more information visit the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability website. 

Image: Sian Dutton (top left), Professor Richard Friend (bottom left) and the Maxwell Centre, which hosts the Winton Programme fellows and students.