600 k for creative, risky ideas

The removal of medicinal residues from water, a new theory of glass and ultra-small electrical circuits. TU/e researchers Kitty Nijmeijer, Liesbeth Janssen and Alberto Curto will be working on these three subjects thanks to a NWO START-UP grant. This new grant is intended for creative, risky ideas of recently appointed assistant and associate professors in physics and chemistry, and amounts to a maximum of € 600,000.

Professor Kitty Nijmeijer TU/e Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry is developing the membranes, or nanofilters, of the future. These can purify water and very selectively and efficiently recover valuable components. For example, we discharge a lot of industrial waste streams from, for example, the dairy industry, manure processing or the chemical industry, while these streams contain many valuable and rare components. Consider, for example, proteins or the raw materials for artificial fertilizer. By recovering these valuable substances we can close raw material cycles.

In addition, Nijmeijer wants to use the membranes to remove micropollutants such as medicinal residues, hormones and pesticides from water. Without this new technique there will be a major threat to our public health and the quality of our drinking water in the coming years. By chemically modifying the membrane pores, Nijmeijer can easily adjust the functionality and pore size. That is precisely the strength of her research: The membranes can be tailored on a molecular level such that their properties exactly match the specific application.

Understanding asthma by studying glass

Liesbeth Janssen, assistant professor at the TU/e Department of Applied Physics, will also receive an NWO START-UP Grant. She wants to understand glass better. When we think of glass we all think of the windows in our house, but a glass phase - non-crystalline or amorphous phase - occurs in all objects around us, even in living cells of the human body. Despite this abundance, glass is a scientific mystery. Janssen is especially curious about how the abruptness with which a transition from a liquid to a glass takes place: the fragility. Through her research she wants to develop a general theory of glass, for which she systematically describes the conversion of glass phase to liquid phase by means of physical laws. In 2015 she published a highly promising proof-of-concept on this.

Janssen’s theory should help with the development of new materials, but understanding medical diseases is also possible. For example, new epithelial cells of the lungs also enter a glass phase, a process that is undergoes a delay in asthma patients. Janssen hopes that her insights can help to better understand this condition, a study for which she is collaborating with the laboratory for cell biology in Harvard.

Light in ultra-thin materials

Assistant professor Alberto Curto from the Department of Applied Physics has also received the grant. He researches nanophotonics and is trying to make ultra-small optical and electronic circuits just 1 nanometer thick. The visible light can be manipulated with that technique on a nanoscale. That goes far beyond the normal diffraction of optical wavelengths.

The active control of light waves at nanoscale is the holy grail for researchers in this field, but it is extremely difficult to substantially change the high density of free electrons in metals. Curto will demonstrate the existence of electromagnetic waves bound to semiconductors with a monolayer. The unique high absorption of light in 2D semiconductors now makes this possible.

NWO has awarded the START-UP Grant to 11 projects. The grant is intended for recently appointed assistant and associate professors in physics and chemistry to develop creative, risky ideas that lay the foundation for the research themes of the future and/or to bring about scientific innovations.