ERC awards Barbara Mazzolai and Andrea Toma with 2 million euros for their projects

Editorial Staff

Focus on environmental sustainability through the development of technologies inspired by the world of plants

A new model of plant robot equipped with artificial intelligence able to have a collective behavior, to monitor the health of the subsoil; and a new generation of nanotechnological devices for storing solar energy in hydrogen. These are the two projects proposed by Barbara Mazzolai and Andrea Toma of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT-Italian Institute of Technology), which were successful in the last European Research Council (ERC)’s competition. The two projects will receive funds of about 2 million euros for the next 5 years and will be carried out with the aim of contributing to the protection of the environment in response to climate change.

Today, the ERC announced the names of the “Consolidator grants” laureates. The grant is for researchers with at least seven years of experience after their PhD, and aimed at consolidating their scientific activity on projects of excellence. The total European investment is 655 million euros, under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, and involves 327 researchers across Europe, of 39 different nationalities, who will conduct their projects in 23 distinct countries.

Italy ranks 9th in Europe for the number of grantees hosted in the country, with 17 researchers who will carry out their research in national laboratories, represented by 14 host institutes, including the IIT, that wins 2 new Consolidator grants. The portfolio of IIT ERC projects – obtained since 2009 – reaches a total 48, obtained from 38 researchers, 15 of which are women, confirming IIT’s ability to attract funds and scientists to Italy for cutting-edge projects, promoting also gender equality.

The role of women is the focus of ERC communications, in fact, 37% of ERC’s Consolidator grants have been assigned to female scientists, a percentage that has grown compared to previous years. Among these scientist, there is Barbara Mazzolai, a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of plants, their behavior both underground and in the air, and the translation of their characteristics into soft robots; a research that has made her a reference figure at an Italian and international level. The ERC funding represents further recognition of Mazzolai’s studies.

Barbara Mazzolai is in charge of the Center for Micro-Bio Robotics of IIT in Pontedera (Pisa, Italy); she was the coordinator of the project that gave birth to the first robot plant in the world, the Plantoid, which can be used for monitoring pollutants in the soil. As part of the European-funded FET GrowBot project, Mazzolai is studying climbing plants with the aim of creating robots that can climb and adapt to the surrounding environment, so that in the future they can integrate as sensors in smart cities. Her new ERC-funded project, entitled I-Wood, is concerned with the health of the underground ecosystem of plant beings, in particular of the network known as the wood wide web. The wood wide web, or mycorrhizal network, is a communication and recovery network of nutrients present between the roots, in which fungi play a key role. Fungi, in fact, attach themselves to the roots and act as connectors between the different plants, representing a sort of additional and collective intelligence. Mazzolai will study the mechanisms underlying the interaction between plants and fungi within this network, in order to develop a new model of plant robot equipped with Artificial Intelligence, so that it is able to explore the soil and implement the collective behaviors of plants. The I-Wood robots will be used to monitor the well-being of the subsoil threatened by the consequences of global warming.

Inspired by the natural processes of photosynthesis, on the other hand, is the project by Andrea Toma, aimed at creating new technologies to capture and convert sunlight into hydrogen as a sustainable energy source. Toma is the coordinator of the IIT Clean Room Facility in Genoa, and is one of the first researchers to arrive at the Genoa site a few years after IIT was founded. With a degree in Physics and a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Genoa, Toma is an expert in the fabrication of new nanometric materials and architectures. He was Visiting Scientist of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and he is a member of the evaluation board of the Molecular Foundry-Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the USA. The ERC-funded project, entitled REPLY (REshaping Photocatalysis via Light-Matter hYbridization in Plasmonic Nanocavities) has the goal to create a new technology capable of exploiting photocatalysis to generate renewable energy starting from the splitting of water. The new devices will consist of hybrid metal-semiconductor nanomaterials and exploit very efficiently sunlight to open new perspectives in the production of hydrogen.