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Annual Review 2020

Research highlights 2018/19

Find our more about how our research is having an impact

Our recent research achievements at a glance

Using graphene to detect ultralow concentrations of NO2

NPL, as part of an international research collaboration, has discovered a novel technique to monitor extremely low concentrations of NO2 in complex environments, using graphene epitaxial sensors. By developing these very small sensors and placing them in key pollution hotspots, there is a potential to create a next-generation pollution map – which will be able to pinpoint the source of pollution earlier, in unprecedented detail, outlining the chemical breakdown of data in high resolution in a wide variety of climates.

DIAL in China

NPL has strengthened its ties with the Chinese National Institute of Metrology (NIM) by signing a Memorandum of Understanding that focuses on Environmental Metrology and simultaneously, a contract for the supply of the NPL Differential Absorption Lidar (DIAL) system was signed. DIAL is a sophisticated remote sensing system that can measure and map emissions of atmospheric pollutants, in real time, and is housed in a completely self-contained mobile laboratory.

Industrial Internet of Things

NPL in the North of England is involved in a programme of research on Industrial Internet of Things solutions within applied manufacturing processes. Actively building demonstrators, retrofitting sensors and microcontrollers to existing equipment to enable the captured data to be sent to the cloud and processed. We have also been collaborating with an SME to build an industrial demonstrator by upgrading one of their manufacturing processes as a testbed, with plans to evaluate and characterise the sensors and processes remotely.

London's Mayor launches world's largest air quality monitoring network

NPL is working alongside a team of experts on Breathe London, a new project which uses the world's most advanced network of air quality monitors to better understand Londoners' exposure to air pollution around the city. NPL's role is to carry out calibrations for the high-accuracy instruments inside the Google cars to confirm the accuracy of the measurements collected.

Detecting underwater earthquakes

NPL and the Instituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRiM, Italy) have developed an innovative method of detecting underwater earthquakes by taking advantage of the vast undersea telecommunications cable infrastructure, a global network for underwater earthquakes could be implemented using laser-based techniques.

NPL in space

The NPL proposed mission, TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies) has been included in the European Space Agency’s Earth Watch programme. This new mission will improve confidence in climate change forecasts by creating a ‘climate and calibration laboratory in space’, making trusted benchmark measurements, against which climate change trends can be detected quickly. It also allows other satellites such as those in Copernicus or emerging constellations to be rigorously re-calibrated in space, removing biases and facilitating a global interoperable ‘climate quality’ earth observing system. 

Synthetic virus to tackle antimicrobial resistance

NPL and University College London (UCL) have engineered a new artificial virus that kills bacteria on first contact. The synthetic virus acts as a 20-nm spherical 'drone' that, upon recognising bacterial cells, attacks their cell walls with bullet speed and efficacy. The findings pave the way for exemplar synthetic biology tools for research and therapeutic use, while demonstrating how effective innovative measurement can be in addressing real-life challenges. This will help improve the reproducibility of biological research and techologies, and bring innovative and robust solutions to the market. 

Metrology for Medical Physics

NPL has launched a Metrology for Medical Physics Centre (MEMPHYS) to accelerate therapies for cancer, dementia and heart disease. MEMPHYS will function as an international centre for excellence, fostering interdisciplinary and inter-sector research to inspire cutting-edge innovations; working closely with the NHS, academia and industry to enable the rapid and widespread implementation of a host of new diagnostic and therapeutic technologies. 

UK Centre for Engineering Biology, Metrology and Standards

NPL and Imperial College have announced the establishment of a new £7 million virtual lab to underpin their joint Centre for Engineering Biology, Metrology & Standards to help the UK synthetic biology industry improve the manufacturing and adoption of new products. This new lab will develop and provide relevant reference materials and methods in the form of a toolbox aiming to improve the reproducibility of research results that will help convert innovation in synthetic biology into valuable products and services. 

'Google Earth' for tumours

NPL is leading a multi-disciplinary consortium to build a ‘Google Earth’ of cancer. The project, which won one of the biggest funding grants ever awarded by Cancer Research UK, will work to create a reproducible and standardised map to understand different tumours in unprecedented detail. The multi-disciplinary consortium, led by NPL, is built up of physicists, chemists and biologists, and includes researchers from Imperial College London, the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, AstraZeneca, the Francis Crick Institute, the Institute of Cancer Research, Barts Cancer Institute and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. 


NPL has opened the UK’s first nanofabrication facility dedicated to superconducting quantum technologies at Royal Holloway, University of London.  This new national facility houses highly advanced electronic nanofabrication equipment within a clean room and brings together some of the UK’s most experienced scientists in superconducting quantum technologies. This facility will enable research and development in the areas of superconducting electronics including on superconducting qubits, quantum sensors and communication devices.

World’s first commercial-grade quantum communications testing link

UKQNtel a collaborative venture between research and industry, is the world’s first commercial-grade quantum test network, and a milestone in the progress towards developing secure quantum communications for the UK. NPL collaborated with many industry partners to test and characterise new quantum communications hardware under development. 

New ways to twist and shift light

NPL researchers investigated how light can be controlled in an optical ring resonator, a tiny device that can store extremely high light intensities, revealing unusual qualities in light that could lead the way to entirely new electronic devices and applications. The results could open doors to new quantum technologies and telecoms systems. 

Measuring gravitation

NPL, working with German and Italian clock experts, has used one of the world's only transportable optical atomic clocks to measure gravitation for the first time. The transportable clock was operated in a laboratory located 1,700 m below a mountain top, in the middle of the Fréjus road tunnel between France and Italy and compared to a second clock located 90km away in Torino, Italy, at a height difference of about 1,000 m. With improvements to the accuracy of the transportable clock, this technique has the potential to resolve height differences as small as 1cm across the Earth's surface. This technology could be used to monitor how sea levels are responding to global climate change. 

Revolutionising graphene printed electronics

NPL helped carry out measurements for researchers at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) at The University of Manchester, who have found a low-cost method for producing graphene printed electronics. NPL and NGI have also partnered to provide a materials characterisation service to provide the missing link for the industrialisation of graphene and 2D materials; and have published a joint good practice guide which aims to tackle the ambiguity surrounding how to measure graphene characteristics. 


Recent highlights from NPL’s Quantum Metrology Institute (QMI) include supporting the commercialisation of Quantum Key Distribution, a theoretically ultra-secure method of communications, by developing and validating methods for counting photons and measuring their quantum states. The QMI is also developing cold-ion microtraps, a scalable on-chip technology for encoding quantum information, and a strong candidate for use in quantum computers. Work is continuing on producing the MINAC Miniature Atomic Clock, a portable reference that brings atomic timing to many new applications and also developing ways to use atomic clocks as sensors of gravity potential. Research is being undertaken to develop atomic magnetometers, which could be used as quantum sensors able to detect brain waves, heart arrhythmia, explosive residue, and corrosion under insulation of pipework. Find out more

The SI units wheelThe redefinition of the SI units

In a landmark decision, made on World Metrology Day, 20 May 2019, at the 26th meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM), the BIPM's Member States voted to revise the International System of Units (SI). This means that the base units are now defined in terms of defining constants, which are the most stable things available for us to use.

The new definitions impacted four of the base units: the kilogram, ampere, kelvin and mole. The most substantial change is how mass is disseminated within national measurement institutes (NMIs). The kilogram is now defined in terms of the Planck constant rather than via the International Prototype of the Kilogram held at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France.

The redefinition is an important milestone in the development of the UK’s industrial strategy and the redefinition of the kilogram was made possible using technology developed at NPL. It was here that the Kibble balance was developed, a device that precisely measures mass using electrical current, without which the redefinition of the kilogram would have been impossible. Find out more

Improving reproducibility in research

NPL, BIPM and other leading NMIs, brought together experts from the measurement and wider research communities (physical scientists, data and life scientists, engineers and geologists) to understand the issues and to explore how good measurement practice and principles can foster confidence in research findings. Find out more

EMPIR projects

NPL is leading 9, and a partner in 8 further new pan-European projects, as part of the European Metrology Programme for Innovation and Research (EMPIR). NPL is addressing challenges such as realising the newly redefined temperature scale, enhancing the optical techniques for time and frequency dissemination and supporting electronics technologies and electrical goods. NPL is leading the network on the important topic of climate and ocean observation. Find out more

Find out more about NPL's Research

Annual Review 2020

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