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School of Engineering awarded two ERC Consolidator Grants

© 2018 EPFL

© 2018 EPFL

Professors Camille Brès and Georg Fantner, from EPFL’s School of Engineering, have both been awarded European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grants. These highly prestigious grants are designed to support young researchers with seven to twelve years of experience who have a solid track record and a top-notch research project.

Miniaturizing optical functions in chips

“If technology is to keep pace with users’ needs, devices need to get smaller and smaller,” says Camille Brès, a tenure-track associate professor who runs EPFL’s Photonic Systems Laboratory. In her research project PISSARRO, she will focus on miniaturizing the optical functions incorporated into CMOS-compatible chips. Current-generation chips contain both electronic and optical functions. Brès and her team want to make chips fully optical, since this will boost performance, increase speed and reduce heat. In signal processing, this will make it possible to send a larger volume of data at a faster speed over long distances.

But to achieve miniaturization, the EPFL researchers face a key constraint: for optical functions on chips to work, light must come into contact with the material that guides it, and this material must have nonlinear properties. More specifically, a large number of optical functions require materials that produce nonlinear – or second-order – effects. Yet materials commonly used in CMOS technology, like silicon and its derivatives, exhibit little or none of this property due to their centro-symmetry. Brès’ aim will thus be to increase this nonlinearity in a flexible manner. “We are familiar with the optical properties that we want to miniaturize, and we know what materials are used to make chips. So we just need to figure out how to make these two things compatible,” says the researcher. The chips she and her team hope to develop will also have to be easy to mass-produce and as universal as possible.

Professor Brès is looking forward to taking her research in this new direction. “On top of the prestige that comes with an ERC Grant, the funding will give us greater freedom in how we carry out our work, especially when it comes to riskier aspects of the research.”

"Feeling" inside living cells

With his InCell project, Georg Fantner hopes to develop a method for “feeling” inside living cells. “It’s a real challenge. The tools we have today only get us as far as the surface of cells,” says the associate professor, who runs EPFL’s Laboratory for Bio- and Nano-Instrumentation (LBNI). His research focus is on atomic force microscopes, which are used to analyze nanometric samples. Instead of using light, they physically probe the surface of objects. “Similarly to how a blind person interacts with objects, a tiny cantilever with a nanometric tip runs over the surface and feels the topography”. The tiny movements that are produced are detected by a sensor and reconstructed, producing a three-dimensional image of the sample at the nanoscale.

In order to investigate the inside of living cells, the cantilever tip has to enter the inside of the cell. “But perforating the membrane damages the cell, and the cytoplasm – the matter inside the cell – can leak out,” says Fantner. The LBNI researchers are attempting to work around this problem by microfabricating special cantilevers. They plan to put the tiny cantilever into a sort of nano-pipette, which will act like a suction cup. After piercing the cell membrane, the pipette will seal the breach and keep the cell alive. The researchers were inspired by patch clamps, which measure the voltage inside cells. They pierce cell membranes without damaging or killing the cells.

The EPFL researchers aim to deliver very high-resolution 3D images of the inside of cells while leaving the cells intact. If they are successful, their method could be used to study mechanisms such as endocytosis “cell drinking”, in which cells take in matter from the outside.

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