Tag Archives: breakthroughs


Imperial College London has a long and storied history of breakthrough discoveries and innovations that have significantly impacted science and technology. Founded in 1907, Imperial College has been at the forefront of scientific progress for over a century. Some of the most notable discoveries and developments to come from Imperial College researchers include:

Penicillin – In 1928, microbiologist Alexander Fleming made his famous discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, which later became part of Imperial College. Fleming’s accidental discovery that the mold Penicillium notatum killed or prevented the growth of disease-causing bacteria revolutionized modern medicine and saved millions of lives. Without Fleming’s critical find at Imperial, antibiotics may never have been discovered.

DNA structure – In 1953, physicists James Watson and Francis Crick jointly discovered the double-helix structure of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory at Imperial. Their breakthrough revealed the molecular basis of heredity and paved the way for major fields like genetics, molecular biology, and genomics. The importance of the discovery of the DNA double helix structure cannot be overstated, as it unlocked understanding of how life works at its most fundamental level.

Hovercraft – In the 1950s, aeronautical engineer Christopher Cockerell invented the hovercraft while working at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Hovercraft Club at Imperial. His creation allowed vessels to travel over virtually any surface, whether land or sea. Hovercraft technology enabled high-speed travel in shallow waters and swampland. It has military, commercial, and recreational applications. Several prototypes were tested on the Thames near Imperial before live hovercraft demonstrations.

First gene drive – In 2016, geneticist Andrea Crisanti and colleagues at Imperial developed the first successful gene drive in mosquitoes. Gene drives are genetic engineering techniques that can override normal rules of inheritance to rapidly spread desired traits throughout a population. The Imperial team engineered a gene drive that biased inheritance in favor of male mosquitoes, causing a population crash. This breakthrough could help control the spread of deadly mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue, Zika, and chikungunya.

Blue LEDs – In the 1990s, chemist Sir Shankar Balasubramanian co-invented a new technique called sequencing-by-synthesis at the Department of Chemistry at Imperial. This enabled the development of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) which are more energy-efficient than incandescent and halogen lights. Blue LEDs are now found in displays, lighting, laser diode displays, and biological microscopy. Balasubramanian’s work opened up advanced technologies like high-definition televisions and smartphones.

COVID-19 vaccine technology – Researchers at Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease led by Robin Shattock developed a self-amplifying RNA vaccine against COVID-19 in 2020. Their approach represented an innovative new technology that could enable more scalable mass production of next-generation viral vaccines compared to conventional vaccines. While their vaccine is still in development and testing, it demonstrated the talent for novel technologies at Imperial amid the global pandemic.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – In the 1970s and 80s, physicists Peter Mansfield and Peter Grannell at Imperial made seminal contributions to MRI technology. Mansfield developed the mathematical methods needed for rapidly acquiring MR images – known as echo-planar imaging. Grannell invented methods to automatically shim magnetic fields in MRI scanners, improving image quality. MRI is now universally used worldwide to non-invasively image soft tissues in the body, revolutionizing fields like radiology, cardiology, neurology and oncology.

This covers just a sampling of the profoundly impactful breakthroughs made by Imperial College researchers over decades. Imperial scholars have also made strides in wireless technology, renewable energy, climate science, aerospace engineering, and many other domains. With advanced facilities and an culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration, Imperial College continues pushing the boundaries of knowledge today across science, technology, medicine and business for the benefit of humanity.