Material science developments related to the environment and renewable energy at EK-CER and Wigner FK successfully completed

The ELKH Centre for Energy Research (EK-CER) and the ELKH Wigner Research Centre for Physics (Wigner FK) have made significant progress in renewable energy research, taking advantage of the institutes’ world-class experience in materials physics, chemistry and measurement technology. The results of the four-year VEKOP project, implemented under the Széchenyi 2020 programme with a budget of HUF 564.06 million, will be used to improve the security of energy supply, the creation of more efficient renewable energy production and storage units, and environmental impact studies.

In the strategic research project just completed by EK-CER and the material science and measurement technology groups at Wigner FK, the primary objective was to study photovoltaic power generation, energy storage and other environmental impacts using solar energy.

In recent years, researchers have made outstanding progress in the following areas:

  • the iron-sulphide thin films they have developed offer the potential to create new types of solar cells with a more ideal band structure and therefore higher efficiency in the future;
  • an energy- and material-saving solution for maintaining catalyst coatings in practice has been tested by slightly modifying molecular systems, which will be more efficient than previously in the development of (photo)electrolysis of water, and thus of pure hydrogen gas;
  • a new sampling procedure and measurement system for monitoring the physical and chemical parameters of ultrafine particles in airborne dust – and their potentially toxic components – has been developed, which is particularly suitable for determining particles coming from solid biomass combustion;
  • they have shown that household solar power plants generate variations that can be measured at system level, and have developed the basis for a high-precision solar power generation forecasting system based on the processing of sky-camera images to infer the voltage quality of the distribution network;
  • they have made significant progress in the field of lead halide-based perovskites for novel solar cells;
  • they have developed a laser energy transfer system that can transmit electrical energy wirelessly over large distances;
  • an internationally outstanding Raman spectroscopy laboratory has been established, which is intensively used by Hungarian researchers and foreign research groups for materials analysis measurements;
  • the two institutes have jointly developed a new Raman measurement technology, which is currently being patented.

The improvements will result in more efficient energy generation and transmission, as well as in more accurate environmental and energy distribution forecasts.

More information about the project “Strategic workshop on the technological challenges of a renewable energy system” can be found here.

Hungarian researchers based in Szeged came closer to understanding the individual immune response to immunotherapy by studying tumor patients treated with immunotherapy

Hungarian researchers at the Szeged Biological Research Center (BRC) belonging to the Eötvös Loránd Research Network and the Department of Dermatology and Allergology of the University of Szeged studied tumor patients treated with immunotherapy with the aim of identifying the factors that determine the individual immune response to therapy. The study presenting their findings was published in the prestigious journal Nature Cancer on July 8.

The human immune system plays a fundamental role in killing pathogens and tumors, while it is essential to tolerate healthy cells of the human body. Tumor immunotherapy has revolutionized cancer treatment in the previous two decades. The treatment is effective against advanced cancers and has given hope for patients in late stages of the disease. The importance of immunotherapy is well illustrated by the fact that in 2018, researchers who played a significant role in its development, James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Tumor immunotherapy augments the immune recognition of cancer cells, which could destroy even metastatic tumors. While it was a huge step forward in the treatment of cancer patients, a notable fraction of them do not respond to the therapy. Consequently, it is of utmost importance to identify biomarkers that can predict which patients benefit from the treatment.

HLA molecules make it possible for the immune system to recognize the molecules of pathogens, tumors and healthy cells. They present short protein fragments on the surface of cells and show extreme diversity, resulting in large differences between individuals. HLA variants called ‘generalists’ can bind and present a very large number of protein fragments to the immune system. These variants are more prevalent in geographical regions with high pathogen diversity because they make it possible for the immune system to recognize more pathogens. One would think that generalists are beneficial in terms of tumor recognition because they are more likely to bind and present the mutated protein fragments of cancer cells. Surprisingly, researchers found the opposite.

The team of researchers – led by Csaba Pál and Máté Manczinger – focused on patients treated with immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy. They showed that although generalists are more likely to present mutated cancer peptides to the immune system, patients carrying generalist HLA variants actually have a worse survival rate. What could be the explanation for this phenomenon?

Unfortunately, generalists are not selective. They also bind and present the original peptides from which mutated peptides arise. As mutated and original peptides are often highly similar, the immune system is unable to distinguish between them and as a result it recognizes tumor cells as healthy ones. On the contrary, selective HLA variants are more likely to present only the mutated peptides, and thus the immune system can recognize and destroy tumor cells more effectively.

The question arises whether carrying generalist HLA molecules is also associated with inadequate immune recognition of pathogens. In their previous research, the team showed that generalists make it possible for the immune system to recognize and destroy more pathogens. This is explained by the low similarity between human and pathogen-associated proteins. As a result, even though generalists do present more self-proteins, the immune system can easily distinguish pathogens from human cells.

In summary, in the case of generalist HLA molecules, quantity predominates peptide presentation at the expense of quality, which results in the defective immune recognition of tumors. The results could help to decide which patients should be treated with immune checkpoint blockade immunotherapy. Importantly, adequate immune recognition of cancer is essential throughout life, which is exemplified by the increased susceptibility of immunocompromised individuals to cancer. BRC researchers are planning to investigate whether individuals carrying generalist HLA molecules are generally predisposed to different tumors as their immune system is unable to recognize cancer cells effectively.

The effect of generalist HLA molecules on the immune recognition of pathogens and tumors. Generalists make it possible for the immune system to recognize and destroy a higher number of pathogens. However, there is a negative trade-off between the recognition of pathogens and tumors. (biorender.com)

Contact:

Csaba Pál (http://sysbiol.brc.hu/pal-csaba-lab-member.html#csaba-pal)
Máté Manczinger (http://immunoinfo.tk, manczinger.mate@brc.hu)

Professor László Hunyady, a member of the Governing Board of ELKH, has been elected to be an inaugural member of the IUPS Academy of Physiology

Professor László Hunyady, a member of the Governing Board of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH), has been elected to be one of the 30 inaugural Fellows of IUPS Academy of Physiology to acknowledge his exceptional contributions to physiological sciences. Professor Hunyady is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Academia Europaea, the Head of the Department of Physiology, Semmelweis University, and previously served as the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Semmelweis University (2013-2019).

The International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS) is a non-political world-wide scientific organization, and is the only body that represents the entire community of physiological researchers, teachers, and students. IUPS, founded in 1953, includes more than 60 physiological societies. IUPS and its member societies promote physiology as a valuable scientific discipline, emphasizing its relevance to medicine and health. IUPS organizes the IUPS Congresses, which have a long standing tradition, and its roots date back to 1889, when the first International Congress of Physiological Sciences was organized in Basel, Switzerland. IUPS established the IUPS Academy of Physiology in 2021 to celebrate and publicize the important contributions made by physiologists to science and health.

The newly established IUPS Academy of Physiology is composed of IUPS Honorary Fellows (Hon FIUPS) and Fellows (FIUPS). Membership is limited to 2-6 new Honorary Fellows and 30 new Fellows each year. IUPS has elected Nobel Laureates Professor Peter C. Agre (USA), Professor Dr. Stefan W. Hell (Germany) and Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Erwin Neher (Germany) as the first Honorary Fellows of the Academy. The newly elected IUPS Fellows represent 5 continents: Europe (12 members, including Professor Hunyady), Americas (8 members), Asia (5 members), Africa (4 members) and Australia & Oceania (1 member). Hon FIUPS Professor Neher, and eight of the European inaugural IUPS Fellows are also members of Academia Europaea, including Academia Europaea Vice President, Professor Ole Petersen, and Professor Hunyady.

The election of Professor Hunyady as one of the first 30 Fellows of the IUPS Academy of Physiology is an important recognition of the achievements of physiological sciences in Hungary.

IUPS fellows announcements and press release

CER researchers to restore arable land biodiversity by creating biodiversity islands

Researchers of the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research (CER) have created ‘biodiversity islands’ for research purposes, i.e. wildflower meadows modelling natural local vegetation, in several fields in the SoltDunavecse region of the Kiskunság region of Hungary. By creating biodiversity islands, the first of their kind in Hungary, researchers are trying to counteract the significant loss of biodiversity caused by intensive agriculture, and provide data to show that restoring biodiversity on arable land supports both agriculture – and thus food security – and wildlife.

“The current dominant landscape of Kiskunság is arable land, which is a kind of biodiversity desert,” says András Báldi, head of the Lendület Ecosystem Services Research Group at the Institute of Ecology and Botany (ÖBI). This is not surprising, as arable land is intensively managed to produce food more efficiently, and the number of plant species allowed to grow is severely limited. Recently, however, the conservation and restoration of biodiversity in these habitats has become an integral part of agricultural and nature conservation strategies.

“We must allow nature to find its place in the agricultural landscape, as many of the functions of semi-natural habitats are also useful for agriculture,” argues András Báldi, “These services include pollination, for example. It is important to know that natural plants are needed for pollinator insects to survive, as are predators and parasites that provide biological protection against pests. These services can be restored by creating so-called biodiversity islands.”

Leaving narrow, three to six-metre flowery or uncultivated strips of land open has long been part of agricultural practice in Hungary, but the ecologist says that this is not enough to maintain biodiversity in these habitats. Therefore in this experiment the researchers created fairly large patches of half an acre in the plots provided for this purpose, where they planted a mixture of seeds from 32 plant species. These included seeds of wildflowers that occur naturally in the Danube-Tisza region and flower throughout the whole vegetation season, meaning that the biodiversity islands created by the researchers have flowering species from early spring to late autumn.

“We planted sage, carnations and cornflowers, among many other species. We expect that where the landscape has been dominated by cultivated plants, we will see the emergence of a diverse wildflower plot,” András Báldi added. “We expect that the planted species will be joined by many other plants, and the plot will be full of bees and butterflies (which can already be seen). Later, we will carry out a detailed survey of all insect species that are important for biological plant protection. We hope that soon the living organisms typical of Kiskunság will appear in large numbers and that they will enjoy this undisturbed habitat.”

In addition to gains in nature conservation, these biodiversity islands can also benefit farmers, and this benefit can even be translated into productivity gains. Over the coming period, ecologists will continue to monitor how the yield of the area changes as a result of the island. They will investigate whether there is an outflow of pests into the field adjacent to the wildflower plot, or whether the biodiversity island is affecting yield averages in other ways.

The researchers hope the results will prove that these semi-natural patches are not harmful, and all the more, they are actually beneficial for agricultural production. Following the reform of EU agricultural subsidies, it may be possible to target larger such areas of uncultivated land.

“These trials are important because they will provide data that will clearly demonstrate to farmers that it is in their interest to cooperate with ecologists in the creation of biodiversity islands,” says András Báldi. “We are confident that this intervention will be beneficial for both parties in the long term. It may easily occur that better pollination will increase the yield or quality of oilseed rape, for example, or that more predatory insects will mean fewer pests. It is clear that in the future we need to make agriculture work more effectively with ecosystems; simply by letting natural processes do the work for us. This is not an insurmountable challenge, as we are part of the same natural-social system.”

The Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Institute of World Economics organized an international conference on the Visegrad countries

The ELKH Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Institute of World Economics (IWE) organized its first Visegrad conference on June 3 and 4. One of the main research areas of the institute is the comparative analysis of the economies, economic development paths and economic policies of the V4. They are convinced Hungarian developments can be better understood in the context of the Visegrad countries. The other ”excuse” for the organization of the conference was the 30th birthday of the Visegrad cooperation.

The invited speakers discussed the main topics of the conference in four sessions. These main topics were in line with the research areas of IWE and focused on the role of emerging multinationals in the region, the specialties and future of the FDI-based development path of the V4-countries, the role of the V4 in the European Union and their energy and climate policies. The two keynote speakers analyzed Visegrad cooperation in political and economic areas. 

Characteristics and role of emerging-market multinational companies in the Visegrad Four

In the session, speakers examined the role of emerging-market multinational companies’ (EMNCs) investments in the Visegrad Four from three different angles over three presentations. First, Kálmán Kalotay (UNCTAD) outlined the main trends in the global activities of EMNCs in recent years, with special emphasis on the consequences of the pandemic. He concluded that statistics are characterized by significant volatility, with no clear similarities between the individual actors, however, China has undeniably become an increasingly significant player, despite the pandemic.

Following this macro perspective, Ágnes Szunomár, senior researcher at IWE CERS, presented the rise of emerging-market multinational companies in Central and Eastern Europe, with a special focus on the trends and characteristics observed in the Visegrad Four. Research results have shown that the majority of EMNCs are influenced not only by macroeconomic factors (such as relatively cheaper, skilled labour) but also by institutional factors and various benefits (such as tax incentives) when searching for potential host countries. In addition, the level of political relations is of paramount importance: if the diplomatic/political relationship is more balanced between the home and the host countries, more investment flows to the host country, especially in the case of Chinese and Russian investors.

The third presentation, by Agnieszka McCaleb (Warsaw School of Economics), focused on the investments of Chinese companies in Poland. It covered the main sectors – including electronics, IT, chemical industry – and the ownership background of the investing Chinese companies. Ms. McCaleb concluded that Chinese actors seem to be increasingly interested in infrastructure projects in the region (including in Poland), as a result of which more activity is expected in this area in the coming period.

The keynote speech on June 3 was given by Christopher Walsch (Corvinus University) and analyzed the characteristics and development over time of the Visegrad cooperation. He indicated that the cooperation worked well during the discussions on the EU budget, but in other areas – though the cooperation is progressing and strengthening – the four countries act rather individually. As an example, he mentioned that regional cooperation is at a low level with regards to multinational companies investing or intending to invest in the V4, particularly China or Russia, and economic policy coordination, though increasing, is still negligible.

FDI-based development path

In this session, the four presentations took different approaches to the topic. Miklós Szanyi (IWE) showed that this development path is not without historical precedence in the region, because certain elements of it were already present at the turn of the previous century.

Ryszard Rapacki (Warsaw School of Economics) analyzed the characteristics of the capitalism in the region, which has developed as a result of the FDI-based development path. He indicated that a kind of patchwork capitalism has been created in the region, whereby formal and informal institutions have weak connections.

Tomás Dudás (Pan-European University) and Martin Grancay (Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava) examined the recent economic development of Slovakia. They emphasized the strong specialization on the automotive industry related to the strong presence of foreign-owned multinational companies. They showed that this development path has resulted in high growth rates in its first ten years, up till 2010, but the limits of the model have since become apparent, due to which Slovakia showed much slower economic growth in recent years, thus falling into a kind of middle income trap.

Martin Myant (ETUI, Brussels) drew conclusions based on the analysis of successful and unsuccessful Czech companies. In his summation, successful locally-owned companies have not been helped by foreign direct investments, because their success is unrelated to supplier relations or partnerships with foreign-owned companies. Thus, he showed an important limit of the FDI-based development path.

The Visegrad countries and the European Union

The panel on the EU-V4 relations was held on the morning of June 4 and contained two politological and two economic presentations. Professor Ladislav Cabada (Metropolitan University Prague) analyzed the role of the V4 group in promoting integration by presenting the relevant narratives (“motor” or “toxic group”) and also the political tendencies of other neighbouring countries. In the second presentation, Karen Henderson (Comenius University Bratislava) analyzed solidarity and diversity in the V4 group, discussing topics where cooperation is present (energy, budget and enlargement) and problems. The first economic presentation was held by Professor Adam Ambroziak (Warsaw School of Economics) and dealt with the external trade of the EU and the trends within the V4 that are similar to EU patterns. Norbert Szijártó, a researcher from the IWE CERS spoke about the V4 nations joining the Eurozone, and the introduction of the euro in the V4. He concluded that those countries that are not yet eurozone members are practically ready to join in economic and monetary terms, but there is no political will for this step.

Jan Drahokoupil’s (ETUI, Brussels) keynote speech addressed the history, advantages and disadvantages of the FDI-based development path of East-Central Europe. He showed that the development of the region – especially in comparison to developed countries – has not shown considerable convergence, and its development was not outstanding. However, the V4 fundamentally had the potential to catch up to the mid-developed Mediterranean countries, and the resilience of the V4 also exceeds that of the Mediterranean region. He also analyzed the integration of the V4 economies in global value chains, organized and managed by multinational companies, and the related prospects.

Energy and climate policy cooperation

Four researchers participated in the panel focused on energy- and climate-related cooperation alongside the moderator, John Szabó from the Institute of World Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies. Áron Buzogány, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, examined the form of the energy transition in the V4 by drawing on the ‘varieties of capitalism’ theoretical framework. He underlined that the region’s countries are generally dependent market economies, which means their performance during such technological shifts is generally weak, the role of the central government is limited, and their ability to use new technologies is dependent on their access to the supply chains of multinational corporations. Martin Jirusek, Masaryk University, Brno, analyzed the V4 cooperation in the field of energy security. Although, the community’s positions towards Russia have typically been divided, many specific cases have led their stances to converge and allow for the continuation of the cooperation. The presentation by András Deák, Institute of World Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, focused on the macro trends in the region, which he assessed in a broader historical context. Finally, Margarita Balmaceda, Seton Hall University, NJ, USA, and Petro Jacyk Distinguished Fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Cambridge MA, provided her comments and notes as an outside observer of the V4’s energy relations.

ATK TAKI researchers investigate the correlations between changes observed in soil-plant-water systems during field experiments and the use of biochar

The Institute for Soil Sciences and Agricultural Chemistry of the ELKH Centre for Agricultural Research (ATK TAKI) has been conducting field, small plot and culture container experiments on biochar since 2014. These studies aim to explore the relationship between the use of biochar and various physical, chemical and biological properties of soil, and to assess the impact of biochar on plant development. In their latest experiment, the researchers investigated the physical and chemical properties of soil and the growth and development of maize after the use of biochar in small plots on clay loam soil. The study evaluated data from continuous soil moisture and soil temperature measurements, spectral reflectance measurements at different wavelengths to provide plant data, and soil sample analyses.

The most important spectral indicators include the photochemical reflectance index (PRI), normalized vegetation index (NDVI), and active photosynthetic radiation (PAR) or absorbed PAR fraction (fAPAR). In their previous studies, the researchers showed that a change in these indices can indicate a stress response in plants triggered by inadequate soil moisture or nutrient levels. While previous experiments demonstrated that the addition of biochar to the soil can increase yield, in the present experiment, despite the application of biochar, there was no significant difference in maize yield between treatments in either the first or second year. This is probably due to the high carbon-to-nitrogen (C/N) ratio of the biochar applied, which can negatively affect fertility, especially if no separate nitrogen fertilization takes place.

NDVI, an indicator of plant health including greenness and density, was not significantly lower in maize grown on biochar-treated soils than in control plots, contrary to expected results. However, the PRI and fAPAR values, which are related to plant stress response to physical and chemical changes in the soil, were higher than in the control plots. The NDVI, PRI values and the high level of root biomass in biochar treatment may indicate good nutrient utilisation by the plants. The application of biochar in the tested soil layers resulted in higher soil temperatures, which can have a major effect on plant growth.

In the two years studied, the researchers measured higher soil moisture levels in the biochar-treated soil immediately after rainfall events, but also faster drying in these plots, creating less favourable conditions for plant growth in more rainfall-deficient areas. Overall, the lower moisture content in the rain-free periods resulted in lower soil moisture values in the biochar-treated soils throughout the growing season. Although one of the characteristics of the biochar used in the experiment is that it has a positive effect on the size distribution of soil pores and can store moisture available to plants in its pores, this effect was not sufficient to increase yields in this case. More favourable results are likely to be obtained in areas less exposed to drought, where irrigation is possible, as well as sandy soils with poor water-holding capacity.

In the experiment, the researchers also examined soil carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions and found that biochar application increased soil CO2 emissions, while N2O emissions decreased. Increased CO2 emissions stemming from the application of biochar on soil are associated with an increased amount of root biomass in this treatment. Increasing soil porosity with biochar provides more favourable conditions for aerobe microorganisms, which also contributes to an increase in CO2 emissions. At the same time, a reduction in N2O emissions was observed as a result of faster drying and reduced anaerobe processes.

It is important to note that the phenological state of the plants affects greenhouse gas emissions: both CO2 and N2O emissions are reduced after maturation and harvesting. The team’s experiments have demonstrated that studying the relationship between soil moisture and spectral indices opens up new possibilities for soil and crop protection.

Summary of first 90 days and results of GRBAlpha small satellite, built in international cooperation under the guidance of CSFK researchers

Designed by the researchers of the Konkoly Thege Miklós Astronomy Institute (CSI) of the ELKH Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences (CSFK), GRBAlpha, a small satellite built within the framework of a Hungarian-Slovak-Japanese partnership, was launched into spaceflight on March 22, 2021 from the space airport in Baikonur (Kazakhstan). The mission’s goal is to help reach a more accurate understanding of phenomena known as gamma-ray bursts, one of the most exciting topics in high-energy astrophysics, using new types of detector systems that can be used on small satellites up to 10-30 centimeters in size. Researchers at CSI and the Institute of Physics at Eötvös Loránd University have summarized the experiences of the first three months that the small satellite has spent in space and the results of its research.

Gamma-ray bursts are short-lived events in which large masses of celestial bodies, such as exploding stars or fusing neutron stars, emit electromagnetic radiation with properties similar to visible light, but much more energetic and concentrated, in the form of gamma radiation. “Gamma radiation is inherently difficult to focus on, so as is customary in classical imaging and photography, we can’t really get answers to even the basic questions of where these celestial events took place, so we can then examine them with other types of instruments and telescopes.” said András Pál, who is leading the development of the system on behalf of CSI.

“However, we are able to take advantage of the fact that even the narrower environment of the Earth in the cosmic sense can only be traversed by light in a few hundredths of a second. This means if we position several similar satellites, with surprising accuracy we can obtain the apparent celestial coordinates of the radiation from the observed time differences using the triangulation method, which is different to other characteristics that can otherwise be measured with a satellite,” added Werner Norbert, who helped provide scientific coordination for the project.

“The first three months of the mission can be said to have been successful in several ways: the satellite’s on-board systems are all in good condition, and both independent channels of the detector system are working well,” László Mészáros, a researcher responsible for the mechanical design of the detector.

CSI staff have determined the background signal level for the entire environment around the Earth, above which we need to look for
these sources. “We are past a number of interesting technical tests, such as the routine updating of several software components of the data acquisition electronics, so that you can take over most of the functions of the on-board computer if the need arises,” said Masanori Ohno, who is responsible for the project, who moved to Budapest from Hiroshima, Japan and joined the Institute of Physics of Eötvös Loránd University. “These solutions are unique in their kind, especially on such small, 10x10x10-centimeter satellites, and they greatly increase the success of the experiment,” said astrophysicist Jakub Ripa proudly.

However, GRBAlpha is only the first in a series of low-energy astrophysics devices developed in collaboration with this team: similar detectors built by the team will launch into space in December this year on board the Czech-developed VZLUSAT-2 satellite, and researchers at the Astronomical Institute are also currently working on a newer detector. This actually opens the way to triangulation-based
positioning.

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Further articles about the satellite:

https://www.svabhegyicsillagvizsgalo.hu/blog-post/magyar-asztrofizikai-kismuhold-indul-az-urbe-mely-az-egesz-foldre-kiterjedo-gammamuhold-halozat-elso-uttoroje-lehet/

https://elkh.org/hirek/nagyenergias-csillagaszati-megfigyeleseket-tesz-lehetove-a-csfk-kutatoinak-vezetesevel-nemzetkozi-egyuttmukodesben-epitett-legujabb-kismuhold/

https://planetology.hu/grbalpha-budapesti-asztrofizikai-kiskocka-az-urben/

Images used:

What is GRBAlpha looking for and measuring? The goal is to identify short, energetic gamma-ray bursts that resemble the suspicious signal shown in the figure. However, under the influence of particles from the Sun, there are constantly particles in the area around the Earth that collect under the influence of the magnetic field around the North and South Poles, as well as in the area also known as the South Atlantic Anomaly. Against this background, we need to look for eruptions of astrophysical origin. When GRBAlpha flies in denser regions, i.e., above polar light, the background radiation also increases.


A complete radiation map of the Earth’s environment based on GRBAlpha measurements. Gamma eruptions can be effectively searched for when the small satellite is above the areas marked in blue. The map shows the zones of particle radiation: the rings that are also responsible for the formation of polar light, and the South Atlantic Anomaly.

CER researchers participate in one of world’s most complex experiments on forest management on oak habitats

Researchers at the ELKH Centre for Ecological Research (CER) are working on the development of a complex forest management system focusing on approaches to nature conservation in Hungarian Natura 2000 oak habitats. The LIFE 4 Oak Forests project, in collaboration with several national park directorates and NGOs, is probably one of the most complex and extensive forest management experiments in oak habitats in the world.

Ever since the dawn of history, forests have provided mankind with building materials and fuel, and still play an important economic role today. The ecological function of forests is at least as important. Among other things, forests capture and store greenhouse carbon dioxide – which helps reduce the effects of climate change – offer flood protection, and provide people with a space for recreation and exercise. They are also home to many species of forest plants and animals, helping to increase biodiversity.

In the past, ecological and economic considerations have often clashed, because the interests of logging did not seem to be compatible with the expectations of ecologists. In general, most European forests that are managed for economic purposes still consist of tree stocks of the same age, with only one or just a few tree species, as these are expected to bring greater profits. The aim of nature conservation management, on the other hand, is to preserve natural forest habitats and restore their condition with a composition of diverse species, with trees of different ages and rich fauna.

At both a global and European level, an alternative approach to silviculture is gaining ground, based on the recognition that only forests in good natural condition can maintain their long-term productivity in the face of climate change. As this approach becomes increasingly popular, ever more forest managers are also taking natural processes into account, for example in the case of interventions for wood use.

“Fortunately, the world is moving towards the increasing integration of ecological and nature conservation aspects into commercial forest management,” says Dr. Réka Aszalós, a researcher at CER. “These two goals can only exist in unison, as we cannot give up either highly protected areas or intensively managed economic forests. However, the protective functions of forests must also be ensured during the cultivation process. With our current experiments, we are researching the best methods of nature conservation measures to help forest managers,” explains the expert.

But how can the natural state of a forest – in this case oak – be restored if the disturbances and intensive human use of the past decades have already altered it? This is what the LIFE 4 Oak Forests project seeks to explore. In addition to CER researchers, the Bükk, Balaton Uplands and Danube-Ipoly National Park Directorates, WWF Hungary, the Érmellék Multi-Purpose Association and the nature conservation staff of the Italian Ente di gestione per i Parchi e la Biodiversità-Romagna are also involved. Nature conservation interventions have already begun in experimental areas in Hungary, across 1,555 hectares of oak.

The project uses field experiments by nature conservation experts to examine how interventions affecting the structure and species composition of oak forests influence forest structure and wildlife, while also seeking to restore the biodiversity of oak forests. To this end, invasive alien plants that are aggressively spreading to the detriment of native species are being eradicated from certain areas and replaced, and in the subsequently sparse area, species essential to a healthy forest ecosystem are planted in their place.

At first sight, the restructuring of the forest does not always feel like an act of nature conservation, as it also involves the felling of trees. But the death of trees, if they are not taken out of the forest, is as much a part of the natural life cycle of the forest as the establishment of new seedlings. When an old tree dies and falls, a gap opens in the canopy, and in the place of the fallen or withered tree (even on the fallen logs themselves), young trees and other plants have the opportunity to start a new life. Forest deadwood is one of the most important structural elements of the natural forest: its presence increases diversity, and the forest becomes more resistant to the vicissitudes of a changing environment.

“The immune system and stability of ecosystems are represented by the most intertwined relationships possible between species. In other words, the more complex relationships we can establish between forest organisms, the more the habitat will look like a natural forest,” Réka Aszalós continues. “Species, including fungi, that may be considered classically enemies in practice, actually have an important role to play in this.”

“An important feature of nature conservation management is that trees felled for the purpose of enriching the forest structure are not utilized in economic terms, but are instead left there as deadwood in these areas. In addition to fallen dead trees lying on the ground, we also create standing dead trees by the process of girdling, which entails peeling their trunks in a ring-like manner. This is because a dead tree standing in the forest also has a special ecological function: it is home to extremely special living things,” says forest engineer Tamás Frank, an CER staff member. Researchers have found that interventions to create deadwood have already yielded quite fast results. The number of woodpeckers has increased in the vicinity of standing dead trees, and other nesting birds and mammals may later move into the holes they have created.

In other areas, around older trees experts are clearing other trees close to them that compete with them so that they can continue to live and grow. In other words, the interventions carried out during the project are as diverse as the ecological relationships between forest species.

As part of the LIFE 4 Oak Forests project, ecologists assessed the condition of forests before interventions. This means that they know the animal and plant species that live there, the species and structural characteristics of the forest, and the ecological characteristics of the area. Even after the interventions, the changes in the treated areas will be continuously monitored. The goal is to use the experiences gained here to contribute to the future nature conservation management of the additional 21,500 hectares of Natura 2000 oak in Hungary.

Further details can be found on the project website.

Drawing Robot, Self-driving Car, and a Flexible Wing Aircraft – SZTAKI took a leading role at the Exhibition on the Future of Artificial Intelligence

The Hungarian Artificial Intelligence Coalition held a professional partner day on June 15, and a public exhibition on June 16. Demonstrations of the Institute for Computer Science and Control (SZTAKI) and other partners of the Artificial Intelligence National Laboratory (MILAB) were on display at building Q at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

On June 15, László Palkovics, Minister for Innovation and Technology, visited the partner day of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Coalition. The minister and the coalition partners were presented the recent developments in the area. In addition to MILAB partners, the Research Center of Vehicle Industry of the University of Győr, the Ministry of Interior, the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Continental, Ericsson, IBM, T-Systems, the Automotive Research Center (JKK) at Széchenyi István University and partners of the AI Coalition involved in the practical application of artificial intelligence were also among the exhibitors.

SZTAKI also showcased the drawing robot of its Research Laboratory on Engineering & Management Intelligence that had already been presented during the Researcher’s Night virtual event in November 2020. The robot draws portraits by taking a photograph of the model that can be vectorized, ‘translating’ visual information into interpretable lines. The robot draws the image of the model by following these vector lines with a pen in its grabber.

A self-driving car developed by the Systems and Control Lab (SCL) of SZTAKI in cooperation with the University of Győr Research Center of Vehicle Industry was also on show. The autonomous vehicle built into a Nissan Leaf is equipped with various sensors, which can help the car to follow its route, including in traffic. Those interested in autonomous vehicles had the chance to see some on the move: autonomous drones that are capable of agile maneuvering and a model car taking part in a virtual traffic. The latter, for example, took the obstacles of a roundabout as if it were manoeuvering in real life.

Another important development of SZTAKI, the contactless infant diagnostic device was also exhibited, which is used to ensure that the vital signs of infants in an incubator can be monitored in hospitals without the need to apply electrodes to their sensitive skin surface. The device developed by the Machine Perception Research Laboratory in partnership with Semmelweis University and Medicor is based on cameras without the need for direct contact with electrodes on the babies’ skin. This solution may be applied in home-care as well.

Flexible wings developed by the Systems and Control Lab of SZTAKI were also shown at the event affixed to a small aircraft model. Researchers of the institute have been developing a solution that may lead us to a more sustainable era of aviation by lowering fuel consumption and enlarging weight capacities of any aircraft as a result. The wings are tested on a machine with a wingspan of seven meters, which is operated in Munich for testing purposes. The exhibition model gave visitors an insight into the project.

The exhibited research fields of SZTAKI are in line with the development goals of the Hungarian Medical Cluster. Based upon this – and to reinforce their partnership – during the exhibition a cluster entry declaration was signed by Professor László Monostori, Director of SZTAKI and Dr. Arnold Steiner, Chairman of MEDICOR Elektronika, and Chairman and CEO of MEDICOR Zrt.

Six of the eight winning applications for this year’s NKFIH Frontline – Research Excellence Program are projects led by an ELKH researcher

The Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NKFIH) has announced the eight winners of this year’s applications for the Frontline – Research Excellence Program. Six of these are projects led by an ELKH researcher, while the total value of the grants awarded exceeds HUF 1.6 billion.

The Frontline – Research Excellence Program provides up to five years of support to first class researchers in the most dynamic creative phase and who wish to carry out cutting-edge international research at a Hungarian research site. The goal of the program is to provide talented researchers with an opportunity to work on a world-class research project in Hungary over the next five years that will help them to successfully participate in call for proposals announced by the European Research Council (ERC).

Details of the ELKH winning projects:

Research site Lead researcher Name of project
CSFK László Molnár Astronomical laboratories
EK Levente Tapasztó New phenomena in artificial crystals constructed by associating 2D materials
RÉNYI Balázs Gerencsér Refined random wanderings and refined new connections
RÉNYI Endre Csóka Random graphs and local algorithms
RÉNYI Miklós Abért Groups and graph convergence
WIGNER Péter Dombi Nonlinear plasmonic phenomena and devices