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The School of Engineering welcomes two talented new professors

© Philip Moll / Alban Kakulya - New Professors Philip Moll and Vivek Subramanian

© Philip Moll / Alban Kakulya - New Professors Philip Moll and Vivek Subramanian

Philip Moll, a new Tenure Track Assistant Professor of Materials Science, and Vivek Subramanian, a new Full Professor of Microtechnology, joined the EPFL School of Engineering.

Philip Moll, Laboratory of Quantum Materials - Using quantum materials to create the next generation of electronics

Philip Moll joined EPFL’s Institute of Materials in June 2018 as an assistant tenure track professor. A German native, Moll previously worked at the Max Planck Institute CPfS in Dresden where he studied the exotic properties of quantum materials. More specifically, he developed new micron-scale fabrication methods that enable engineers to make circuits and electronic devices employing these unconventional materials. Moll’s cutting-edge research sits at the crossroads of physics, materials science and chemistry. 

Understanding, building and making it work

Most of the modern technology we use draws on the physical and chemical properties of select materials. These properties are well understood and play a critical role in applications ranging from medicine to electronics. But today scientists are discovering a whole new category of materials – called quantum materials – whose surprising properties can be used to create the next generation of electronic devices. 

These exceptional properties include superconductivity and chiral charge carriers, which cannot be explained by classical physics. Moll and his research team aim to uncover the secrets of quantum materials thanks to a revolutionary method they have developed for making ultra-precise quantum microcrystals. These microcrystals can help scientists measure the materials’ exotic properties, and they can be tested in prototypes.

“Our method uses a focused ion beam to evaporate nanometer-sized areas of a crystal by bombarding it with ions. Essentially it is an extremely precise knife, enabling us to carve crystalline microcircuits out of powder-sized particles.” says Moll. “This carefully controlled process lets us characterize quantum materials’ properties and test their potential for use in electronic devices, for example.” 

“It’s as if your pen suddenly weighed 100 kg” 

Moll has always had an adventurous spirit and been attracted by unconventional thinking. He obtained a physics degree at ETH Zurich where he observed that “people aren’t afraid to try out new things.” 

His research at the time looked at iron-based supraconductors. He then completed a post-doc at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied topological conductors – an area of physics that was the subject of a recent Nobel Prize – and heavy fermion superconducting materials. “I wanted to understand how they work. The electrons in heavy fermions behave as if they were 1,000 times heavier than they actually are. It’s as if your pen suddenly weighed 10 kg, but otherwise it is still a normal pen. It’s unbelievable and exciting at the same time.” 

Next station: EPFL

After spending two years at the Max Planck Institute, Moll applied for a position at EPFL. “There was no doubt I wanted to come here. It’s actually the only place I applied to,” says Moll. “I really enjoy the vibrant research culture at EPFL and the multi-disciplinary approach at IMX, uncovering unexpected opportunities to collaborate outside ones core field.” Another strength of EPFL is its shared microfab and microscopy facilities like the CMI and CIME. Moll hopes to collaborate with other research groups at the school and continue performing unprecedented experiments as he seeks out new discoveries. The Laboratory of Quantum Materials, which he now heads, has a large, powerful magnet that he can use to observe how his quantum crystals respond to magnetic fields. 

Vivek Subramanian, Laboratory for Advanced Fabrication Technologies - Additive manufacturing expert joins EPFL’s School of Engineering

He has founded startups, grappled with manufacturing challenges and led an outstanding academic career. Vivek Subramanian is now a full professor at EPFL’s Institute of Microengineering in the School of Engineering – a position he took up in August after teaching at Berkeley. At EPFL, he will continue his cutting-edge research in 3D printing and additive manufacturing and hopes to give students a taste for entrepreneurship.

Soon engineers will be able to make smart devices that are personalized down to the micron level and manufactured as a single piece – regardless of their size, shape or how many different materials they contain. These devices could range from implants and batteries to car parts and spacecraft components, and will be cheaper, more efficient, greener and faster to produce than what’s currently out there. At least that’s what Subramanian hopes to achieve with his research in additive manufacturing – including advanced 3D printing – which he will now carry out at the Laboratory for Advanced Fabrication Technologies (LAFT) on EPFL’s Neuchâtel campus. 

Drawing from several disciplines 

After obtaining a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford University, Subramanian worked in the semiconductor industry where he launched several startups, including Matrix Semiconductor. He then took up a position at the University of California, Berkeley, as a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. “The years I spent working in industry have influenced my approach to research. I try to anticipate and then develop solutions for the challenges that companies will encounter in the next ten or fifteen years,” he says. And he believes the key to doing that is drawing on advancements in several disciplines. “Innovation often sits at the crossroads of several fields. I’m an electrical engineer by training, but at my lab we have also developed new materials, constructed revolutionary printers and implemented methods from mechanical engineering.”

Treating 3D printing as a science

Today 3D printing technology still has limitations. Objects are typically made out of only one material and can’t be very small. “This field still isn’t treated as a science. We don’t have a good understanding of the mechanisms involved – each item that’s made is essentially a test run,” says Subramanian. And that’s what he hopes to change. “I try to convey this mindset to my students. For engineers, making objects and prototypes is not and should not be seen as a lab experiment. Every object we create can be modeled, checked and used to predict future outcomes – and can therefore help us develop personalized devices.” 

An attractive research environment

What attracted Subramanian to EPFL is that researchers are allowed to take risks. “The work we do will make a difference, but we might not see it for a few more years. That’s a risk EPFL is willing to let us take,” he says. What’s more, Switzerland is particularly well-suited to 3D printing technology, given its skills in and long history of precision manufacturing. Subramanian also points to the ability for researchers based here to obtain EU funding, which lets them tackle large-scale projects. “I hope to develop major projects in collaboration with other labs.”

Authors: Laure-Anne Pessina, Clara Marc