Xile Hu and Jiri Vanicek win ERC grants

Xile Hu and Jiri Vanicek ©EPFL

Xile Hu and Jiri Vanicek ©EPFL

Professors Xile Hu and Jiri Vanicek have been awarded ERC Consolidator Grants.

The European Research Council’s (ERC) Consolidator Grants are given annually to researchers of any nationality with 7-12 years of research experience after completion of their PhD, for “a scientific track record showing scientific talent and an excellent research proposal”.

The Consolidator Grants, which generally provide funding for 5 years, are part of the ERC’s commitment to support “the highest quality research in Europe with competition-based financing”, with the ultimate aim “to establish and solidify European research as cutting-edge research.”

The 2015 ERC Consolidator grants amounted to €585 million awarded to a total of 302 mid-career scientists of 34 different nationalities. EPFL was represented by six winners, two of which are from the School of Basic Sciences: Xile Hu and Jiri Vanicek.

Xile Hu: Fundamentals and applications of inorganic oxygen evolution catalysts

Professor Hu's proposal aims to understand the oxygen evolution reaction (OER) on metal oxides at the molecular level and engineer catalytic sites at the atomic scale, and to develop and apply practical OER catalysts for high-efficiency water splitting in electrochemical and photoelectrochemical devices.

To understand OER on metal oxides, Hu’s group will use 2-dimensional metal oxide nanosheets as a platform to probe the intrinsic activity and active sites of metal oxide OER catalysts. The project will also aim to develop sub-nanocluster and single-atom metal oxide OER catalysis.

Developing practical OER catalysts will involve establishing new and better synthetic methods, as well as developing new classes of catalysts, and applying catalysts in innovative water splitting devices.

The OER is the key reaction to enable the storage of solar energy in the form of hydrogen fuel through water splitting. Large-scale and cost-effective production of solar hydrogen requires efficient, Earth-abundant, and robust OER catalysts. But while existent catalysts based on metal oxides are promising in terms of activity and stability, their heterogeneous nature makes rational design and development challenging.

Hu’s proposal will make use of methodologies from different disciplines in chemistry and materials science. The project will begin with synthesis, which will become its backbone. The synthetic efforts will be complemented and validated by state-of-the-art characterization and catalytic tests.

The proposal envisions that it “will not only yield significant fundamental insights and knowledge in heterogeneous OER catalysis, but also produce functional and economically viable catalysts for solar fuel production.”

Jiri Vanicek: Unraveling molecular quantum dynamics with accelerated ab initio algorithms

Many physical and chemical processes in nature as well as an increasing number of man-made devices exploit the quantum properties of electrons, nuclei, and the quantum signatures of the coupling between nuclear and electronic motions.

In order to optimize the design of novel devices and to correctly interpret physical processes studied, e.g. by experiments probing the molecular dynamics induced by interactions with ultrashort laser pulses, quantitative simulations are required. But even though Schrödinger’s equation was discovered ninety years ago, such simulations remain extremely difficult for systems with more than a few degrees of freedom. Because the exact solution of time-dependent Schrödinger’s equation scales exponentially with the number of atoms, accelerating computers, even by orders of magnitude, cannot break the exponential barrier for simulating molecular quantum dynamics.

Professor Vanicek’s proposal aims to develop accurate methods and efficient algorithms that will make simulations of quantum dynamics of polyatomic molecules possible. This will be accomplished through three objectives:

  1. By combining accurate ab initio electronic structure calculations with accurate quantum or semiclassical treatment of nuclear dynamics.
  2. By developing and implementing exact and approximate computationally efficient quantum dynamics methods applicable to polyatomic molecules.
  3. By developing systematic methods for visualizing this quantum dynamics and for interpreting the spectra of complex systems in terms of the underlying nuclear and electronic motions.

"One may say that the proposal’s goal is to develop theoretical methods that will allow the replacement of popular classical molecular-dynamics movies by their quantum analogs," says Vanicek.

ERC Press release (PDF) | Full list of winners (PDF)