INNOVATION AND SOCIETAL RELEVANCE

Applied Physics at TU/e, Plasma and Beams

Society faces significant challenges in the future and will only be able to overcome them through the right combination of fundamental research, applied science and meaningful minds.

TU/e’s Department of Applied Physics is organized around three disciplines:

  • Fluids, Bio and Soft Matter
  • Plasmas and Beams
  • Nano, Quantum and Photonics

Valorization of these three disciplines is developed along the following themes: Smart Materials and Processes, Renewable Energy, High Tech Systems and Engineering Health.

The department comprises 12 research groups. Each group is tasked with developing a strong scientific knowledge platform, maintaining a clear public profile, and ensuring a steady flow of funding.

This interview focuses on fundamental research and applied science in the area of Elementary Processes in Gas Discharges (Assistant Professor Job Beckers), Plasma and Materials Processing (Full Professor Adriana Creatore) and Coherence and Quantum Technology (Associate Professor Servaas Kokkelmans).

Why does TU/e have such an outstanding reputation in Applied Physics?

Job: “In our field, TU/e has the best support technology and the best ecosystem in the world. The lab facilities are tremendous and Eindhoven is also unique in that we have leading global players on our doorstep: ASML, for example, and Philips, VDL ETG and Prodrive Technologies. The work is fascinating from a fundamental science point of view and the collaboration with industry – actually seeing your discoveries used in high tech equipment in the mid-term – is immensely satisfying.”

Adriana: “TU/e is a leading, international university specializing in engineering science & technology, with a high profile in the strategic area of energy. Several groups at the Department of Applied Physics address the science of materials and interfaces in energy conversion and storage devices. In our group, we study the fundamentals of plasma and atomic layer deposition (ALD) to enable innovation in the synthesis of nano-layers and their implementation into the next generation of energy conversion and storage devices. In addition to long-standing partnerships with (inter) national academia and research institutes, we collaborate with several industrial partners (Levitech, Smit Thermal Solutions, SolayTec, Oxford Instruments, VDL ETG) to promote successful research valorization. For example, the Dutch industrial ecosystem is globally recognized for manufacturing large-area, high throughput plasma and ALD deposition tools.””

Servaas: “I am active in the field of quantum gases on the fundamental research side and quantum simulators as the applied science spin-off. TU/e has years of experience and some of the best people in this field. The fact that we at TU/e are one of the initiators behind the national agenda for quantum technology gives you a good idea of our authority and standing in this area.”

What have you focused on during the past 12 months?

Job: “Our laboratory experiments have started to bear fruit: we now have some inkling of how particles of only a few nanometers in size charge when placed in a plasma and interact with the plasma. Exploring and understanding these mechanisms is crucial to making significant progress in the scientific field of Complex Ionized Media (CIM; i.e. plasmas with small additives), and the associated technological applications. It was also really gratifying to see that many of our industrial partners have intensified their collaboration with us by funding several PhD and postdoctoral positions during the past 12 months.”

Adriana: “I have pioneered the application of ALD in metal halide perovskite solar cells. These cells are extremely appealing because they are cost-effective and lend themselves to the large-scale manufacturing of tandem solar cells, in conjunction with crystalline silicon or CIGS solar cells. However, perovskite solar cells degrade very quickly in the environment. Thanks to our collaboration with the thin film solar research institute Solliance, we have extended the shelf-life of the solar cells by introducing an extremely thin ALD layer (less than 1 nm thick!) into the cell architecture. This major breakthrough is presently motivating several other studies where ALD is key to engineering interfaces and thin films in perovskite solar cells”.

Servaas: “I’m very proud of my involvement in TU/e’s Center for Quantum Materials and Technology, which opened last year. And of the success of our NWO Vici project, which is a model for a strongly interacting quantum gas. We call this gas a unitary Bose gas. The difficulty here is that the gas quenches to a unitary state in microseconds and then rapidly decays, so our only option for studying the interactive processes was to take ‘photos’ by using lasers to excite the atoms and thus produce shadows. Although the processes look random at first sight, we have discovered that they are systematic and ordered. This model will allow us to study similar physics to what happens inside a neutron star (the second heaviest object in the universe) and improve our understanding of the natural world and the universe.”

Fascinating and very diverse! Where do you expect to be in three years?

Job: “Until now, we have only been able to study the plasma-induced particle charging mechanism in the micrometer range, simply because we can see what is going on at that level with the optical equipment that is currently available. The process at nano level is very different and stochastic – i.e. seemingly random – in nature, and not well understood at present. So we are working to develop techniques that will allow us to see how nano particles actually behave. I expect this breakthrough to come in the next three years, having a large impact on the understanding of complex ionized media, but also on many related fields of research.”

Adriana: “I expect to explore ALD (and atomic scale processing tools in general) in energy-related devices other than perovskite solar cells. Think about tandem solar cells beating the thermodynamic limit in efficiency for solar-to-electricity conversion, but also electrocatalysis for fuel generation and solid-state batteries. The implementation of ALD nano-layers in these devices requires fundamental understanding of the surface reactions and film growth mechanisms.”

Servaas: “I fervently believe that we will succeed in demonstrating a quantum simulator in the next three years. This will be a huge breakthrough and the first step in paving the way for quantum computing, i.e. mindboggling computing power, far greater than today’s supercomputers, coupled with a very low power demand. To achieve this we also need to understand hybrid quantum algorithms and the interaction between conventional computers and quantum computers.”

TU/e is obviously recognized as a leading university in Applied Physics. Would you recommend TU/e to other academics looking for research opportunities?

Job: “Although I have spent much of my academic career at TU/e, I am also familiar with CERN (Switzerland), San Diego State University (USA) and Sydney University (Australia). After gaining my PhD, I worked in industry for XTREME Technologies in Germany for a year before being appointed to my current position of Assistant Professor at TU/e. Based on that experience, I can wholeheartedly confirm that TU/e is an ideal environment for societally useful fundamental research in our field: a great place for colleagues looking for inspiring research positions and the opportunity to teach bright minds.”

Adriana: “I obtained my MSc and PhD in Chemical Sciences from the University of Bari in Italy, before being awarded a Marie Curie (FP5) postdoc fellowship at TU/e. I love my research work and I also very much enjoy teaching “millennials” and educating the new generation of engineers. If you believe passionately in something and convince your colleagues and mentors about your ideas, TU/e opens doors that let you achieve your dream. Moreover, TU/e is home to a unique mix of fundamental research, applied science and collaboration with industries.”

Servaas: “After gaining my MSc and PhD at TU/e, I accepted a position at a highly respected lab at Colorado University. That was followed by a period of post-doctoral research in Paris at Laboratoire Kastler Brossel. Then I was offered the opportunity of returning to TU/e as an Assistant Professor in 2004. I can heartily recommend TU/e and Eindhoven to colleagues looking for research opportunities: the level of cross-disciplinary collaboration and close ties to industry are eye-opening.”

What unresolved question or dream inspires you?

Job: “Ultimately, our research efforts will lead to perfect control over extremely small particles in the nanometer regime. This will have very broad implications. For instance, plasma can help to synthesize new nanomaterials which cannot be made ‘on a surface’. Also, knowledge regarding the interaction of nanoparticles with plasma will one day allow us to not only carefully measure nano air pollution, but even take a great leap forward in eliminating it. Through our research, this high “contamination control potential” of plasma has already found its way to the high-tech industry where it is applied to the development of ultraclean equipment and processes. My dream is to make Eindhoven the ‘global epicenter’ when it comes to Complex Ionized Media and connect all the national and international parties working on these applications though our strong fundamental knowledge base.”

Adriana: “There are already many examples of how ALD and atomic scale processing can outperform more traditional synthesis methods, both in microelectronics and energy technologies. What is still lacking is an adequate and detailed understanding of the relationship between the structure of a material at atomic scale and the material’s performance in a specific device. If we succeed in gaining insight into this relationship, we will be able to custom-design materials for specific applications.”

Servaas: “I hope that our current research will result in a true quantum technology that will provide answers to issues that we cannot presently resolve. Take CO2 emissions as an example. The current solution paths are hopelessly inadequate. What we need is a way of removing CO2 from the air on a massive scale. While we know of a number of reactions for capturing CO2, the calculations are immensely complex and almost impossible to process using today’s technology. Quantum computing technology would give us the number-crunching power we need. The same applies to calculating complex chemical reactions that would lead to game-changing breakthroughs in industry, food production and individually targeted medicines.