Capability for Science of the Future: Ultrafast Spectroscopy Laser Centre at Sheffield, USLS

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Chemistry


We propose to build an ultrafast laser spectroscopy system which, by exploiting modern technological advances, will allow us to examine in many different ways what happens to molecules and materials after they absorb light, both immediately after absorption and then the longer-term consequences.

The interaction of light with matter is one of the most important areas in modern science. It underpins the emerging technology of new photonics-based materials that can be used in the communications, computing, displays and lighting devices of the future; the economic impact of this technology sector in the short-to-medium term is predicted to be very large. Interaction of light with matter is also the basis of the conversion of sunlight into energy by photosynthesis - which is fundamental to life on earth. Natural photosynthesis is quite well understood and is sufficiently effective for Nature's needs: the goal now is to build artificial systems that mimic the key properties of natural photosynthetic systems so that we can, finally, harvest sunlight as an energy source and make a major contribution to mankind's long-term sustainable energy generation that is not fossil-fuel dependent and is not polluting. The tasks of artificial photosynthesis are extensive: not only do we need to construct molecular systems or materials that can capture light effectively, but they need to be able to use it to either generate energy directly (e.g. as electricity in photovoltaic cells), or to drive chemical reactions that provide 'stored energy' as a solar fuel (e.g. by providing energy for conversion of the waste-product CO2 to the fuel methanol).

All research in light/matter interactions - whether it is directed at understanding nature, harnessing energy, or constructing new optical communications devices - requires the ability to measure the extremely fast changes that occur in molecules and materials immediately after light is absorbed. The initial changes take place on a timescale of femtoseconds and may involve movement of electron density, or changes in bond vibrations, which can be detected. Subsequent to this the captured energy 'flows' through the molecular assembly or material, and this movement of charge or energy from place to place - which can occur on timescales from picoseconds to microseconds - can again be visualized in detail. Finally any subsequent chemical changes that may occur on timescales as slow as milliseconds will be visualized. The result will be the ability to monitor exactly what happens in materials and molecular assemblies once the photon of light is absorbed; as the energy or an electron subsequently moves through the material and/or results in structural changes; and as the energy is finally used in various ways from luminescence to triggering chemical reactions.

The facility that we will build will be unique in the UK university system as it will combine diverse aspects of ultrafast spectroscopy in a single, integrated facility which will enable the most comprehensive set of measurements possible at a single site with a single sample. The facility will combine a wide range of timescales that can be measured (all events from femtoseconds to milliseconds, which spans 11 orders of magnitude); a continuous spectrum of energies from low-energy vibrations to high-energy electronic transitions; and a wide range of interrogation techniques that allow changes in structure and electronic properties to be probed in real time. This will provide researchers both in Sheffield and the wider UK community - with whom the facility will be shared, by creating an "ultrafast hub" - access to a state-of-the-art tools for studying light-matter interactions. This will facilitate a wide range of science in areas of national importance and potentially benefit society from technological developments (such as new photonics-based materials and devices) and from cleaner and cheaper energy generation using sunlight.

Planned Impact

The wide range of research facilitated by USLS will lead to correspondingly extensive impact, beyond the academic benefit from the new scientific knowledge. There will be many important economic and societal impacts which have the potential to improve diverse aspects of our lives.

Economic impact will occur in both the medium and long terms. Medium-term benefits will be mostly from the more applied research projects, that are linked to spin-out companies or industrial sponsors. A key example is photonics technologies which currently underpin > 10% of the EU economy with a projected global market of Eur 600 Bn by 2020. These include all-optical communications, energy efficient lighting, photonic diagnostics for healthcare, safety and security, and laser-based therapies. Likewise, organic optoelectronics are predicted to be a disruptive technology enabling market growth impossible with existing technology. Use of OLED displays alone are projected to drive substantial economic growth in applications such as mobile phones, TV, notebooks, tablets, digital cameras and in cars; and OLED lighting alone is predicted to have a market value of $1.3 Bn by 2023. Key beneficiaries: photonics-based industries and users of their products from development of new technology.

Improvements in energy generation - arising from a range of research projects spanning chemistry, physics, engineering and synthetic biology - will have long term economic benefits for everyone. Although many of these projects are focussed on the blue-skies research, they have potentially huge benefits. Key beneficiaries: energy sector in the medium term, society as a whole in the long term, due to lower energy costs and greater sustainability.

Societal benefit follows economic benefit. In the long term society as a whole will have higher quality of life from the reduced costs and cleaner environment associated with improved renewable energy generation, as well as access to improved photonics technologies for day-to-day issues from communications to healthcare.

In the energy field in particular, economic benefits for a few translate into global societal benefits for all. The importance of addressing the problem of sustainable energy generation cannot be overstated. Given that our most reliable energy source is the sun, solar energy capture and solar fuel generation are expected to be the most important themes of the range of projects supported by USLS.

'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance' (Bok). The new knowledge arising from USLS will initially benefit academia, but as impacts and exploitations emerge this knowledge will become integrated into the areas of commerce, education and indeed everyday life. We will ensure maximum benefit from the new knowledge via engagement with schools outreach and public understanding events. An important goal is to raise awareness of the importance of sustainable alternatives to conventional energy sources: our programme of public lectures, schools events, and Science week events will emphasise this. Key beneficiaries: the public, from improved understanding of issues surrounding applications of light-based technologies and energy in general.

A major long-term impact from USLS will arise from training and development of early-career researchers. Given the importance of light-based methods in the research that underpins fields from healthcare to sustainable energy, a trained pool of young scientists will be essential to maintain the UK's competitive position in these fields, ensuring the sustainability of our science and industry base on a 10-50 years time scale. Key beneficiaries will therefore be the researchers themselves, UK research / industry in the future, and society as a whole. The conference participation and training will provide immediate transferable skills to PhDs and postdocs which will enhance their future carrier to the benefit to them, science and society.


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publication icon
Barendt TA (2018) Anion-Mediated Photophysical Behavior in a C Fullerene [3]Rotaxane Shuttle. in Journal of the American Chemical Society

Description The grant is to develop a regional laser facility for use across several EPSRC portfolio areas. The facility is presently in the testing mode and will be operational in the near future.
Exploitation Route The equipment will be used by a broad range of researchers working in several areas of the EPSRC portfolio.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Healthcare

Description The findings have been used to communicate the importance of various light-driven technologies during open days.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Chemicals,Education,Energy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description EPSRC Energy Feasibility Studies
Amount £195,000 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2017 
End 04/2019