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Smashing photons into matter

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Northeastern University physics professor Arun Bansil has received a three-year, $1 million grant from the United States Department of Energy to develop the next generation of theoretical tools to understand what happens when photons are smashed into materials that transform into new states of matter.

Bansil, the founding director of Northeastern’s Advanced Scientific Computation Center, will oversee an international team of 30 scientists from top labs and research universities, including University of California, Berkeley, Stanford and Princeton. Other members of Bansil’s research team include professor Robert Markiewicz and senior research scientist Bernardo Barbiellini-Amidei, both of the Northeastern physics department. 

“It is good to see that Northeastern is taking the lead in this exciting project involving a stellar, worldwide group of institutions,” Bansil said. 

The research will yield new insight into how electrons behave in complex materials and how excited electrons lose energy. This understanding is key to designing new materials for a wide range of applications, including the development of more efficient solar cells, longer-lasting and higher-capacity batteries and more environmentally friendly catalysts for energy production, Bansil said. 

The researchers will work to understand an emerging field of science focused on the interaction between light and matter. In related experiments, scientists excite matter through a controlled burst of photons or light energy. Then, they probe the properties of the material by firing a second beam of light at very short time intervals as the material relaxesback to its original state.

“A large fraction of science looks at things when properties are not changing over time,” Bansil said. “Now, new tools let scientists observe what happens when you put enough energy into a material, causing it to go out of equilibrium. 

“This opens up unprecedented new opportunities for investigating and controlling matter at the atomic level.”

During his 35-year career at Northeastern, Bansil’s research has focused on understanding how electrons behave in novel materials and how these electrons can be probed by modern spectroscopic techniques. His research has been featured in the journals Nature and Science. Bansil founded the ELMO Laboratory for science education at Northeastern and the PASTEL (Partnership for Arts, Science and Technology Learning) program for informal science education in collaboration with Boston’s major art and science museums.

Previous coverage:
Unraveling the mysteries of high temperature superconductors (May 6, 2011)
Doughnuts, soccer balls and exotic topological insulators (April 29, 2011) 

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