Bristol wins £1m for computing on encrypted data

May 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Bristol University’s Cryptography Group has received nearly £1 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council UK (EPSRC) with the aim of transforming security applications in the future.

The grant will enable the research group, led by Nigel Smart, Professor of Cryptology in the Department of Computer Science, to continue their work on forms of technology that enables computing on encrypted data, such as fully homomorphic encryption and multi-party computation. The project aims to take these theoretical approaches and examine more closely the barriers to true practicality and will have wide- ranging impact on areas as diverse as database access, electronic auctions and electronic voting.

The new grant is in addition to another grant from the US agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for research on fully homomorphic encryption.

“It is really important that the UK invests in research in this area, as the potential benefits if we can make this technology practical could be immense,” said Professor Nigel Smart. “However, the timeline to a useable practical realisation could be many years. This investment by EPSRC shows a deep understanding of the long-term nature of the contribution of university research to the competitiveness of UK plc.”

In 2009 Craig Gentry from IBM came up with the first scheme which simultaneously allows you to “add” and “multiply” ciphertexts. Gentry’s scheme, although an amazing theoretical breakthrough is not practical, and last year the group at Bristol showed how one could instantiate Craig Gentry’s breakthrough 2009 scheme by simplifying the key generation and encryption procedures to produce a partially working system.


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New online mechanism for electric vehicle charging protects the Grid

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Researchers at the University of Southampton have designed a new pricing mechanism that could change the way in which electric vehicles are charged. It is based on an online auction protocol that makes it possible to charge electric vehicles without overloading the local electricity network.

The paper –  Online Mechanism Design for Electric Vehicle Charging – was presented this week at AAMAS 2011,  Tenth Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems, and outlines a system where electric vehicle owners use computerised agents to bid for the power to charge the vehicles and also organise time slots when a vehicle is available for charging.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are expected to place a considerable strain on local electricity distribution networks. If many vehicles charge simultaneously, they may overload the local distribution network, so their charging needs to be carefully scheduled,” said Dr Alex Rogers, University of Southampton computer scientist and one of the authors.

To address this issue, Dr Rogers and his team turned to the field of online mechanism design. They designed a mechanism that allows vehicle owners to specify their requirements (for example, when they need the vehicle and how far they expect to drive). The system then automatically schedules charging of the vehicles’ batteries. The mechanism ensures that there is no incentive to ‘game the system’ by reporting that the vehicle is need earlier than is actually the case, and those users who place a higher demand on the system are automatically charged more than those who can wait.

“The mechanism leaves some available units of electricity un-allocated. This is counter-intuitive since it seems to be inefficient but it turns out to be essential to ensure that the vehicle owners don’t have to delay plugging-in or misreport their requirements, in an attempt to get a better deal,” said Dr Enrico Gerding, the lead author of the paper.

In a study based on the performance of currently available electric vehicles, performed by Dr Valentin Robu and Dr Sebastien Stein, the mechanism was shown to increase the number of electric vehicles that can be charged overnight, within a neighbourhood of 200 homes, by as much as 40 per cent.

The research follows on from Dr Rogers’ and Professor Nick Jennings’ work on developing agents that can trade on the stock market and manage crisis communications and Dr Rogers’ iPhone application, GridCarbon for measuring the carbon intensity of the UK grid.

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Bath scientists find ‘switch’ that could help design new vaccines and treatments for auto-immune diseases

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Researchers at the University of Bath have determined a new structure of an important complex in the human immune system that could be the key to designing vaccines and treatments for autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Dr Jean van den Elsen of the University of Bath and Dr David Isenman of the University of Toronto show how a new understanding of the structure of this immune system complex has important medical implications. An atomic structure of the complex, which is key to the development of immunity against microbial pathogens and a potential target for the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as MS and SLE, was first published in Science in 2001, but it was recently determined to be incorrect by the two researchers.

Dr van den Elsen and Dr Isenman have spent a decade studying the complex and decided to reanalyse its structure to develop a correct understanding of its atomic details. “The research looks at a complex between two proteins, one from the complement system – a part of our innate immune system that is present from the beginnings of our lives – and another from the adaptive immune system,” said Dr van den Elsen. “It has become understood in recent years that the complement system also has a role in ‘kick-starting’ the adaptive immune system – the part of our immune system that reacts to pathogens as we are exposed to them, by developing antibodies.”

The researchers focused on a particular protein, C3, in the complement system and its molecular partner complement receptor 2 (CR2) on the surface of B cells, the antibody producing cells of the adaptive immune system.

C3 breaks down to produce a fragment called C3d when attached to a pathogenic antigen which is then able to act as a ‘bridge’ between the innate and adaptive immune systems by connecting the antigen recognition entity of the B cell (the B cell receptor, BCR) with the complement receptor.

This then boosts the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies that attack the pathogen.

The interaction between C3d and CR2 therefore acts to increase the sensitivity at which a pathogen is recognised and reacted to in the body, which is essential in keeping us healthy from disease.

This characteristic has important implications for the design of new vaccines against diseases caused by microbial pathogens

However, this process can go wrong, with the immune system mistaking a part of the body as a pathogen and attacking it, resulting in an autoimmune disease.

Dr Isenman said: “To treat antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases there is a potential to target the ‘bridging’ action of C3d with CR2, through designing drugs that would inhibit the interaction.

“However, due to the misunderstandings caused by the previous structure of the complex, over the past ten years progress in this field has been delayed.”

The findings will end a decade-long controversy regarding the structure of this important part of the immune system, and marks a turning point in science’s ability to develop treatments for a subset of autoimmune diseases.

Dr van den Elsen said: “The new structure is very different to the previous one, but its features conform to all existing biochemical data.

“With the issues relating to the structure of this complex now resolved we hope to take our research forward and use this as a platform to design inhibitory compounds that may be useful in treating antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases.”

The authors of the current study recognise that this goal will not be easy to achieve and that there is a great deal of research still to be done.

However, this discovery is a key milestone in the development of a treatment for antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases and the structural scaffold on which all future progress is based is now firmly in place.



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£2 million for brain research in Bristol

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A University of Bristol academic has been awarded over £2 million by the Medical Research Council (MRC) to look into the neural network basis of learning, memory and decision-making in health and disease.

The majority of the grant will fund Dr Matt Jones’ MRC Senior Non-clinical Research Fellowship, entitled ‘Control of neuronal networks and cognitive behaviour by deep brain, transcranial and optogenetic stimulation’.

“Your brain is constantly doing sums, weighing-up past experience and the current situation in order to decide how best to behave.  Unfortunately, patients with brain diseases like schizophrenia have trouble coping with these decisions that most of us take for granted.  Electrical activity in different parts of their brains becomes subtly uncoordinated, making it difficult to see the wood for the trees,” said Dr Jones, Senior Research Fellow in the University’s School of Physiology and Pharmacology.

“This project will use stimulation techniques designed to control the brain’s electrical signalling (very carefully – you wouldn’t notice if it was done to you) to see if we can re-coordinate brain activity at important times such as during decisions and therefore improve cognitive performance,” he said.

In a second MRC-funded project led by co-applicants Professors Lawrence Wilkinson, Mike Owen and Mick O’Donovan of Cardiff University, Dr Jones’ lab will contribute to a study of schizophrenia risk genes.  Understanding the genetic basis of the disease is central to designing new therapies.

Dr Jones said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to unite the internationally recognised strengths of Cardiff and Bristol’s geneticists and neuroscientists.  This project evolved from a pilot funded by the Severnside Alliance for Translational Research (SARTRE), and we are delighted that the MRC continues to recognise what hotbed of translational neuroscience Bristol and Cardiff represent.”

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Researchers look at using virtual antennas

March 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Virtual antennas – using several antennas of equipment nearby – can improve the performance of wireless devices in some cases, say researchers at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Communications Research (CCR)

Details here

CCR has also launched a £10m Doctoral Centre opening next week

SW Microelectronics iNet


Bristol physicists move closer to efficient single-photon sources

March 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A team from Bristol has taken a big step toward efficient single-photon sources that could be used for completely secure optical communications.

Fluorescent “defect centres” in diamond act like atomic-scale light sources at toom temperature but need to be etched to generate the best source, and this is a huge challenge.  them strong contenders for use as sources of single photons (the quantum light particle) in secure quantum cryptography schemes, says J. P. Hadden, a Ph.D. candidate in the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bristol.

“Defect centres could also be used as building blocks for ‘solid-state quantum computers,’ which would use quantum effects to solve problems that are not efficiently solvable with current computer technology,” Hadden says.

“We managed to show an improvement in the brightness of these defect centres of up to ten times by etching hemispherical ‘solid immersion lenses’ into the diamond,” he said. “This is an important result, showing how nanofabrication techniques can complement and enhance quantum technologies, and opens the door to diamond-defect-center-based implementations of quantum cryptography and quantum computation.”

More recently, Hadden and colleagues developed a technique that allows them to reliably etch these structures over previously characterized defect centres to a precision of about 100 nanometers — another significant step toward a practical and repeatable combination of nanotechnology and quantum optics.

The team presented its findings in Applied Physics Letters, a journal published by the American Institute of Physics.

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Bristol team builds optical components for quantum computing

March 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Quantum Circuits Based on MMI Devices

A research group led by scientists from the University of Bristol has demonstrated the quantum operation of new components that will enable compact circuits for future photonic quantum computers and is starting to build the components.

Building a quantum computer will require a large number of interconnected components – gates – which work in a similar way to the microprocessors in current personal computers. Currently, most quantum gates are large structures and the bulky nature of these devices prevents scalability to the large and complex circuits required for practical applications.

Recently, the researchers from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Quantum Photonics showed, in several important breakthroughs, that quantum information can be manipulated with integrated photonic circuits. Such circuits are compact (enabling scalability) and stable (with low noise) and could lead in the near future to mass production of chips for quantum computers.

Now the team, in collaboration with Dr Terry Rudolph at Imperial College, London, shows a new class of integrated divides that promise further reduction in the number of components that will be used for building future quantum circuits.

These devices, based on optical multimode interference (and therefore often called MMIs) have been widely employed in classical optics as they are compact and very robust to fabrication tolerances. “While building a complex quantum network requires a large number of basic components, MMIs can often enable the implementation with much fewer resources,” said Alberto Peruzzo, the PhD student working on the experiment.

Until now it was not clear how these devices would work in the quantum regime. Bristol researchers have demonstrated that MMIs can perform quantum interference at the high fidelity required.

Scientists will now be able to implement more compact photonics circuits for quantum computing. MMIs can generate large entangled states, at the heart of the exponential speedup promised by quantum computing.

“Applications will range from new circuits for quantum computation to ultra precise measurement and secure quantum communication,” said Professor Jeremy O’Brien, director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics.

The team now plans to build new sophisticated circuits for quantum computation and quantum metrology using MMI devices.

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Bristol appoints its first Business Fellows to build links with industry

February 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Research and Enterprise Development at the University of Bristol has announced its first Business Fellows – five research scientists at Bristol who will take the lead in supporting a culture of collaboration between academics and industry.

The first Business Fellows are:

Dr Jenny Jennings in Veterinary Pathology and Infection and Immunity, Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Simon Mcintosh-Smith in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering

Dr Tom Scott in the Interface Analysis Centre, Faculty of Science

Dr Bo Su in the School of Oral and Dental Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

Dr David Matthews in the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Fellows are expected to commit half a day a week to the role, supporting their colleagues and stimulating business collaborations in ways that do not impact on their teaching, research and administrative work. The University has been working with London Technology Network (LTN) which has experience in helping science-based university researchers to increase their interactions with business. The new Fellowships involve intensive training and mentoring provided by LTN, who will also facilitate interactions with industry around specific projects.

Bristol Fellows will take part in training programmes and activities alongside researchers from other universities in the spring of 2011.

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University of Exeter joins SETsquared

February 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A key strength of the Southwest, the SETsquared Partnership of the Universities of Bristol, Bath, Surrey and Southampton, has been joined by the University of Exeter.
SETsquared is one of the UK’s most successful and long-running university-enterprise collaborations and runs innovation and enterprise centres across the region, developing routes to market for academic research, raising investment and creating jobs through its support for high-tech, high-growth early stage companies – both university spin-outs and companies in the wider community. Over the last five years the Partnership has supported around 650 companies, helped raise more than £150m in capital and created over 1,000 new jobs.
Exeter already has solid links with Bristol and Bath. Its activity in climate change, functional materials, systems biology and translational medicine adds strength to the Partnership’s research base. Exeter also has strong networks and support facilities for high-tech companies and will be a proactive partner in SETsquared’s incubation and business-creation agenda.

The SETsquared Partnership has nearly 7,500 academics at the five universities, which are jointly responsible for nearly nine per cent of the UK’s research budget.

“In these difficult times, the contribution universities make to the economy is key. The SETsquared Partnership has been very effective and expanding our membership will strengthen the role we can play. Exeter is an outstanding research-based university and is strongly engaged with the business community. It is an excellent fit with SETsquared’s existing members,” said Neil Bradshaw, Director of Enterprise at the University of Bristol and a member of the SETsquared Management Group.

“It is excellent news that the University of Exeter has now decided to become a member.  It produces outstanding research and is strongly engaged with its regional business community,” said Ron Humphreys, Director of Bath Ventures. “We look forward to working together to bring further beneficial impact to the economy and wider society through our business support facilities and our combined research portfolio.”

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Imaging beauty down to 1nm in Bristol

February 9, 2011 by · 1 Comment
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Scientists at the University of Bristol now have a new tool that will yield yet more and unprecedented levels of information without disturbing the physical state of the object under scrutiny.

Monmorillonite particles, cut apart to reveal that one of them is hollow.

Physicists at Bristol’s Interface Analysis Centre have been using the Helios dualbeam instrument, which “unlocks the key to a whole new world,” says Centre Director Dr Tom Scott. The dualbeam looks at surface structures with a resolution of less than a nanometre – the equivalent of ten millionths of the thickness of a human hair.  The resolution of the images produced is just one nanometre, one millionth of a millimetre.

The dualbeam uses a focused ion beam (FIB) and a high spec field emission scanning electron microscope (SEM) with gallium ions derived from a liquid metal ion source that are directed at the surface in a tightly controlled beam . The ion beam can be precisely controlled to remove material from tightly defined areas – essentially performing micro and even nano-surgery on almost any material.

Unlike other techniques used for dissecting materials, the dualbeam can extract information and capture images without causing any detectable damage except over a tiny area.  It can also deposit materials such as gold and platinum, known for their conductivity, on to the surface structure, providing insights into the composition and behaviour of materials.

For physicists looking for quantum wells, biologists looking at the structure of membranes in the ears of tree crickets, and engineers keen to understand the nanostructure of exotic alloys, the dualbeam is invaluable.

A nano-wire made using ion beam milling for gas sensing applications. It also happens to look like a small-scale version of the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol

“It makes things possible which were previously considered impossible, it’s at the heart of what makes science beautiful,” says Dr Scott.  “It can do things in such a precisely defined way to such a high degree of accuracy that it really is incredible.  In fact, it’s difficult to comprehend just how small a scale this thing works on.”

Some of the project proposals under consideration that would make use of the dualbeam include an examination of the ears of Indian tree crickets, where the dualbeam could be used to slice and view in three dimensions reconstructions of cricket ears.  The findings could ultimately inform medical advancements in hearing devices for humans.

The dualbeam could also be used in quantum cryptography, to devise ways of transmitting messages in a way that is resistant to attempts to tap into the source, using emitters constructed from a single photonic light source so small and so intricately encoded as to be virtually undetectable.

In biochemistry, researchers are looking at making actuators – “gold sandwiches” with a polymer filling which could swim through the bloodstream, collecting information that could be used to inform medical approaches to human disease.

Dr Scott is keen to seek out other collaborations that will test the boundaries of every discipline:  “The dualbeam instrument is a clear example of the University’s commitment to groundbreaking developments in research,” he said. “If we are going to be the leaders in the UK and internationally in terms of research we need to be pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible, and this new piece of equipment will certainly enable us to do that.”

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Bristol opens new £2m research data centre

February 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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‘BluePeta’ to safeguard research data

Bristol University has worked with IBM to develop a £2m data facility that holds approximately one petabyte of information — the equivalent of 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text or 13.3 years worth of HD-video footage. The ‘BluePeta’ project is to safeguard the research data assets of the University, which is one of the first higher education institutions in the UK to install a high-capacity data storage facility on this scale.

BluePeta has been specifically designed for the University through a collaboration with technology suppliers SCC and IBM in response to the increasing volumes of research data being created and the need to curate this information securely over the long term.  The facility will enable researchers from a wide range of disciplines to improve the security and efficiency with which their data is accessed, stored and retrieved.

“Bristol is a leading research-intensive university and our academics are involved in some of the world’s most challenging and groundbreaking research,” said Professor Guy Orpen, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research at the University. “The data we generate is fundamental to our operation. We have invested substantially in an enterprise-grade storage solution which will ensure the knowledge our researchers create is preserved in a resilient, cost-effective, scalable and secure environment.”

Users of BluePeta will come from all disciplines, from scientists working on aspects of climate change to physicists using the Large Hadron Collider. The facility will also be used by arts and social sciences researchers who need to archive images, video files and datasets.

Research funding bodies are increasingly asking universities to retain research data to allow its use, reuse and repurposing over the long term,” said Dr Ian Stewart, Director of the University’s Advanced Computing Research Centre. “BluePeta allows this process to take place in a central and secure environment, enabling researchers to maintain data integrity — the accuracy and consistency with which they store their data.”

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