ICFO researcher receives ERC Advanced Grant

By April 12, 2024ICFO

Dr. Javier García de Abajo, ICREA Prof. at ICFO and member of the BIST scientific community, has received a 2024 ERC Advanced Grant. His project will introduce a conceptually disruptive approach to capitalize on the quantum nature of free electrons and their interactions with matter and radiation fields.

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced the awarding of 255 Advanced Grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the Horizon Europe programme. The grants – totalling nearly €652 million – support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields, from Life sciences and physical sciences to social sciences and humanities. Among this call’s recipient is Dr. Javier García de Abajo from ICFO, a BIST community centre, with his project QUEFES: Quantum-Enhanced Free-Electron Spectromicroscopy.

The grant adds to the existing 94 ERC grants coordinated by the BIST scientific community between 2016 and 2023, with a total amount of €138.2 million already received in funding, placing the BIST community 24th in Europe and second in Spain in total funding amounts.

Prof. Javier García de Abajo received his first ERC Advanced Grant in 2018 for the project eNANO: Free Electrons as Ultrafast Nanoscale Probes, and will now begin work on his second ERC Advanced Grant, which will run from 2024- 2029. For the project, Prof. García de Abajo will introduce a conceptually disruptive approach to capitalize on the quantum nature of free electrons and their interactions with matter and radiation fields aiming to obtain previously inaccessible information on the atomic-scale dynamics of such materials, to reveal hidden properties of the quantum vacuum, and to control the many-body state of quantum matter.

Ultrafast electron microscopy relies on the spatial, spectral, and temporal manipulation of free electrons with nm/meV/fs precision to map the structural dynamics as well as the vibrational and electronic ground and excited states of nanomaterials. This project will address five challenges of major scientific relevance: (i) the spatiotemporal control over the density matrix of free electrons by interaction with suitably designed optical fields to overcome the current limits of space/time/energy resolution in time-resolved electron spectromicroscopy; (ii) a disruptive approach to map the nanoscale quantum fluctuations and the out-of-equilibrium state associated with optical near fields in vacuum and polaritonic excitations in nanomaterials; (iii) a Fourier-transform-inspired method to image the spatiotemporal evolution of atomic structures, charge carriers, and dynamical screening; (iv) the use of free electrons to flexibly read and write the many- body quantum state of trapped Rydberg atoms and quantum gases; and (v) the realization of all- electron pump–probe spectroscopy combined with the formation of dynamically screened multiple free-electron bound states for lossless charge transport in a semiconductor.

The strong interdisciplinary theoretical background of the members of the Nanophotonics Theory Group led by Prof. García de Abajo will allow them to pursue these research frontiers at the intersection between electron–light–matter interactions and nanophotonics. By introducing a change of paradigm in the use of free electrons to break the current limits of spectromicroscopy, the project has the potential to revolutionize our ability to image and manipulate the nanoworld.

The project tackles a very vibrant area that combines electron beams and ultrafast lasers to reach the limits of resolution in space and time when imaging material structures on the atomic scale,” explains Prof. García de Abajo. “As a theory group, we try to push the field beyond its current experimental frontiers by devising new methods to achieve such a goal. We will also explore exciting new physics that involves the interaction between free electrons and light in unprecedented ways. We believe that we can contribute to steer this field with the help of theory and will do our best to produce breakthroughs!

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