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New professor joins EPFL's School of Engineering

© 2019 Alban Kakulya

© 2019 Alban Kakulya

Giulia Tagliabue recently joined EPFL’s mechanical engineering department as a tenure track assistant professor. In her work, she aims to provide a better understanding of how light interacts with materials on a nanometric scale. This information will enable engineers to design more sustainable energy systems. Tagliabue will pursue her research at the School’s new Laboratory of Nanoscience for Energy Technologies.

Most people think of gold as a shiny yellow metal. But it isn’t always the case. Gold can appear blue or even black if its shape and structure change in a way that alters how it reflects and absorbs light. Tagliabue’s research investigates this interaction between light and materials on a nanometric scale – and the possibilities those interactions can open up in the field of energy efficiency.

At EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanoscience for Energy Technologies, Tagliabue is looking more closely at how light is converted into energy – and more specifically at how light can be used to control nanoscale transport processes. She wants to explore opportunities for using this knowledge in new applications such as improved storage methods for renewable energy and more energy-efficient systems for water filtration and desalination. 

A dynamic research environment

Tagliabue’s interest in energy technology started during her Bachelor and Master studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Udine, where she was also a student of the Scuola Superiore. She merged this interest with the study of nanotechnolgies for light harnessing during her PhD studies at ETH Zurich as well as her post-doc at Caltech in the US. Her studies also included a brief stint at EPFL’s Lausanne campus, as part of an Erasmus exchange program during her Master’s degree. Her decision to return to EPFL for this new professorship largely reflects the School’s reputation in her field. “It’s a leading university in sustainability and clean energy, with a community active in this area,” she says. “EPFL’s dynamic environment makes it the perfect place to set up an independent research group, work towards my objectives and form research partnerships.” 

A cross-disciplinary field 

Tagliabue’s research sits at the crossroads of photonics, energy systems, mechanical engineering and heat transfer.“My goal is to contribute to the development of more sustainable systems by exploring the fundamental mechanisms through which light can be utilized to initiate and manipulate nanoscale heat, mass and charge transport processes, particularly at solid-liquid interfaces and in highly confined systems. For example, I am interested in exploring the potential of non-equilibrium photo-excited charge carriers in photochemical systems and studying whether different light colors – that is, photon energies – can be used to trigger chemical transformations with high selectivity and in a tunable manner,” she says.

Her earlier work on plasmonic nanostructures led to the development of ultrathin, high-performance scalable solar absorbers, as well as to the proof-of-concept demonstration of light-improved selectivity in plasmonic photoelectrodes for artificial photosynthesis. 

Showing students the opportunities provided by nanotechnology

At EPFL, Tagliabue teaches a course on heat and mass transfer to third-year Bachelor’s students. She hopes to give them not only a solid technical foundation but also a chance to learn about the promising and exciting new opportunities being opened up by nanotechnology. The goal is to whet their appetite for fundamental processes and related areas of innovative research. 

Author: Clara Marc