EU grants €14 million to Swiss researchers



The European Research Council (ERC) has given four scientists from the PSI, EPFL, ETH Zurich, and Stockholm University a €14 million grant to look “into the heart of materials” and uncover new quantum effects that have gone overlooked or have just been undetectable by previously employed methods. The so-called HERO project is expected to set off the next quantum revolution.

Seeking to further our understanding of quantum properties of materials, four expert scientists have successfully secured an extraordinary €14 million Synergy Grant, administered by the European Research Council and the most prestigious award for excellent European research projects.

The team consists of three scientists in Switzerland and one in Sweden: Gabriel Aeppli at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), Henrik M. Rønnow at EPFL, Nicola Spaldin at ETH Zurich, and Alexander Balatsky at Stockholm University’s Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (Nordita).

With this funding, the scientists will join their respective expertises to look into “the heart of materials” to uncover new, “hidden” quantum properties in known materials, meaning properties that could not be seen by current methods or have perhaps been overlooked. They will also design new materials with useful quantum properties. Such new properties could be of use for data processing or storage in the future and thus become the backbone of future electronics, which need to be faster, smaller, and more energy efficient.

The scientists will use several large research facilities at PSI for complementary investigations, as well as employ the computing power of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) at ETH Zurich in Lugano for data processing and theoretical calculations.

They researchers called their joint research project HERO which stands for “Hidden, Entangled and Resonating Orders” – all of which are important quantum properties they will look at in order to discover possible materials of the future.

“It is highly relevant that we pursue this research today,” says Gabriel Aeppli, photon scientist at PSI. “Today’s silicon-based information technology still relies on principles which have been discovered around 70 years ago. This puts severe limits on what is possible, particularly where speed and energy efficiency are concerned.” Therefore, Aeppli continues, “we need to work on the next stage of the information revolution where we take more advantage of quantum effects.”

The three scientists in Switzerland all work within the ETH domain. This gave them a notable advantage in joining their expertise, says Henrik Rønnow, neutron scientist at EPFL’s Institute of Physics. The four experts teaming up now will greatly advance the field: “Every time we sit together, we notice that we all come from very different angles but are often looking at the same thing,” continues Rønnow. “Already in the past, listening to the viewpoints of the other three has given me new ideas on how to better find the things I am searching. I am therefore very much looking forward to expanding this collaboration.”

The scientists’ understanding of “hidden” phenomena can be explained by an analogy: “Imagine a large area composed of blue and yellow pixels,” says Nicola Spaldin, theoretical chemist and material scientist at ETH Zurich. “From a distance, it looks green; but when we look more closely, we discover additional information – in this case the way that the blue and yellow are arranged to make the green colour – hidden from plain sight.” In the case of quantum phenomena, she explains, hidden properties are anything but trivial to find. “This is why to uncover them we need the advanced characterization tools of the large research facilities at PSI.”

The team’s fourth scientist, Alexander Balatsky, is a theoretical physicist at Stockholm University. “We say that humanity has passed the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, and is currently in the silicon age. What comes next will quite certainly be the quantum age – but which quantum material will it be? At this point, we need to look at a lot of potential materials; it takes horses to have a race. And in the end, of course, we hope that one of our materials will win the race.”

Not being a member of the EU, Switzerland’s place in the ERC grant system is not self-evident. Currently, Switzerland is fully associated with the EU, and scientists active in Switzerland are particularly successful with their applications for ERC grants.