Ultrafast Spectroscopy of Advanced Materials at the University of Warwick

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Physics


Structure-function relationships are commonplace, none more so than in biology: for example an enzyme binds to a substrate to catalyze a reaction. The added dimensionality of dynamics offers a more complete structure-dynamics-function (SDF) relationship, which provides unprecedented insight, at the molecular level, of why certain photochemical processes dominate over others. Once again in biology, this is best exemplified by human vision, which, at the molecular level, involves a structural change of the retinal chromophore, following absorption of light, in a few hundred femtoseconds (1 fs=1x10-15 s).

Transferring the idea of SDF relationships into a range of advanced materials offers tremendous scope towards enhancing their functionality. It is with this idea in mind that we propose to develop a multi-user ultrafast spectroscopy facility, enabling one to study the consequences of light interacting with advanced materials on very short timescales and thus establishing rigorous SDF relationships. The research that will be facilitated is broadly grouped into four themes: Quantum Materials; Lasers and Medicine; Photostability; and Semiconductors. However, substantial cross-cutting links exist between the themes, and progress in one area will stimulate another - for example understanding the photostability of life's building blocks will lend support towards improving organic semiconductor photovoltaics - thus providing a sum that is greater than the individual parts.

The proposed facility consists of five laser beamlines, which will enable users with different requirements to carry out ultrafast spectroscopy experiments independently and simultaneously at wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum, from terahertz (THz) to X-ray radiation, all in a single laser laboratory. This is a one-of-a-kind capability, and the vision of the investigators is to exploit this facility to foster cross-disciplinary research, enabling chemists, physicists, engineers and life scientists over the course of many years to work together to achieve major scientific breakthroughs. Importantly, the facility will be hosted in the new Materials and Analytical Sciences building at the University of Warwick, which was set up by the Departments of Chemistry and Physics specifically to promote such cross-disciplinary research. The broad user base identified includes 21 groups at the University of Warwick and over 10 national and international research teams, which the investigators hope to expand in years to come.

The targeted research across these themes has the potential to make transformative contributions to a number of EPSRC grand challenges, including (i) Dial-a-molecule, (ii) Emergence and Physics Far From Equilibrium, (iii) Nanoscale Design of Functional Materials, and (iv) Understanding the Physics of Life. For instance, the high-field THz capability will provide access to extreme non-equilibrium physics in spintronic and multiferroic compounds, as well as permitting functional optoelectronic nanomaterials to be designed and characterised. Likewise, garnering a molecular level understanding of photoprotection of the building blocks of lignin will bring new insight into photodegradation processes in the naturally occurring lignin polymer, which may then inform those working on transforming biomass carbon content into bio-ethanol or chemical feedstock. Importantly, whilst the latter work contributes to Understanding the Physics of Life, it also has the potential to create a healthy synergy with the EPSRC's neighbouring Energy theme, specifically Bioenergy. Such synergies feature widely in the cross-disciplinary research proposed, which will inevitably lead to extensive economic and societal impact that will be accelerated by the pathways to impact proposed.

Planned Impact

Academic discoveries provide a critical pathway to economic and societal impact. The ultrafast spectroscopy facility at Warwick will drive impact in disparate areas by developing and fostering the collaborative work between academics and industry, and by advancing our global knowledge of the light-matter interaction in novel materials. We describe below examples of impact in the areas of Photonics, Energy, Health and People; further examples and details are expounded in the Pathways to Impact document.

Photonics: The UK's photonics industry consists of over 1500 manufacturing companies, with revenue in excess of £10 billion annually (Source: UK Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network). The collaborative work enabled by this project - between academic groups and industrial manufacturers of materials, lasers, photovoltaics and other optoelectronic devices - will provide a route to economic growth in the UK's photonics sector. Novel sources of light and optoelectronic components for the under-exploited terahertz frequency range may influence global development of future short-range wireless communications, by exploiting higher data rates than available with current (gigahertz) technology. This will become increasingly significant for the wireless communications industry over the next 10 years, as links with terabit-per-second rates become a reality.

Energy: By garnering a molecular level understanding of why specific biopolymer (lignin) building blocks are found in nature, chemical biologists may improve biofuels, thereby contributing to societal challenges such as energy supply, and thus shaping policy in the medium term. The improved understanding of photophysical and photochemical processes in conventional and novel photovoltaic materials will contribute to energy demand by enhancing device reliability and efficiency.

Health: Society will benefit from the enabled work on photoprotection mechanisms, light-activated anticancer drugs and fluorescent markers. The insights from the structure-dynamics-function approach adopted in this research theme will permit biochemists and clinicians to tailor, for instance, more efficient anticancer drug designs. The creation of such next generation medicines will impact upon societal challenges such as improved healthcare. Indeed, one major healthcare provider has already expressed an interest, and the team will seek to grow such links and opportunities with UK small and medium-sized enterprises with similar expertise and interests. As a result, the research enabled may generate a healthy synergy with the neighbouring EPSRC's Healthcare Technologies theme, specifically the research area of Developing Future Therapies.

People and Skills: Science communication activities to schools (and beyond), in which the team consisting of the PI, CoI and users have an extensive track record, will help different groups of non-scientists understand the importance and excitement of scientific research. School visits, optics-themed events and public lectures will inspire budding young scientists. The training and development of early career researchers through the ultrafast spectroscopy facility, where they will gain advanced experimental and theoretical skills, will help to create a talent pool to drive key emerging industries over the next 10-30 years.


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Description The strategic equipment funded on this grant allowed the development of a multi-user ultrafast spectroscopy facility, the Warwick Centre for Ultrafast Spectroscopy (WCUS). We use extremely short light pulses (lasting only hundreds of femtoseconds) to trigger changes in materials. The exciting development achieved here is that we can use wavelengths anywhere from the UV through to the THz spectral ranges to either "pump" or "probe" the dynamics of advanced materials within four broad themes: (A) Semiconductors, (B) Quantum Materials, (C) Lasers and Medicine, and (D) Photostability. This experimental capability lets us study the dynamics of electrons, vibrations and mobile charges on femtosecond to nanosecond timescales. For instance, our UV photoexcitation, white-light probe work has examined the compounds used in sunscreens, while our optical pump, THz probe spectrometer has studied charge motion in nanomaterials of interest for future electronic devices. We have published around 30 articles in international journals since the formation of WCUS.
Exploitation Route The individual findings of our users are taken forwards in a number of different ways including in the form of scientific journal articles, to help develop new chemical compounds or products, and in support of requests for funding from funders like the EPSRC, ERC, Royal Society etc. The facility has multiple experiments and capabilities available for use from our internal and external user groups, as described on our web pages at http://go.warwick.ac.uk/WCUS
Sectors Chemicals,Education,Electronics,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

URL http://go.warwick.ac.uk/WCUS
Description This EPSRC Strategic Equipment Grant has led to the creation of a new research facility at the University of Warwick: the Warwick Centre for Ultrafast Spectroscopy (WCUS). This research facility has a strong user base from across the UK and further afield, including a number of university researchers and a variety of SMEs and larger companies (around 50 users from academic and industrial partners at present). We have evolved into a university-supported research facility (a Research Technology Platform) with dedicated staff and strict financial plans to ensure sustainability. At the WCUS we use the advanced laser equipment funded on this EPSRC grant to create short pulses of light, which we use to probe how materials respond to absorbing light. Such "ultrafast spectroscopy" experiments were principally of interest to highly-specialised physics and chemistry academics over the last 20 years. By establishing a facility where these methods are available to the wider community we have achieved three major impacts: (1) We have made ultrafast spectroscopy accessible more broadly in academia. Here, the most important point is that not all research-active institutes can have or can support these complex experiments, which rely on amplified laser systems, and which we use to produce light in the UV, visible, infrared and terahertz regions on multiple "beamlines". There is a lot of know-how and scientific expertise in establishing and maintaining these beamlines. By providing a central location where this expertise and equipment is available, we have lowered the barrier to entry for materials scientists, chemists, engineers, and physicists who do not have a background in ultrafast spectroscopy, but which nonetheless have benefited from access to the scientific information available via WCUS. (2) We have made ultrafast spectroscopy available to industry. We have developed a number of partnerships with industry, underpinned by the support from the EPSRC Strategic Equipment grant. This has led to impact in multiple sectors, including healthcare (e.g. we contributed to the development of light-actived anti-cancer drugs), energy (e.g. we investigated new semiconductors for solar cell applications), electronics (e.g. we investigated the performance of new semiconductors with an SME), agriculture (e.g. we lead a multi-national EU project on enhancing crop growth, involving SMEs and universities). (3) We have generated significant academic impact. Research from the WCUS has featured in publications in high-profile materials science and nanoscience journals (Advanced Functional Materials, Nano Letters, ACS Nano), major chemistry journals (e.g. Nature Chemistry, J. Phys. Chem.), interdisciplinary journals (Nature Communications, Carbon, J. Mater. Chem.), and condensed matter physics (Physical Review B, Nanotechnology, J. Phys: Cond. Matt.) to name a few. Particular highlights include the first demonstration of intertube excitonics in 1D van der Waals heterostructures (Adv. Func. Mat.); photo-redox catalysis to target cancer cells (Nature Chemistry); developing carbon nanotubes for improved ultrafast lasers (Nano Lett) and highly efficient and fast THz modulators (Carbon).
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Education,Electronics,Energy,Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Boosting Crop Growth using Natural Product and Synthesis Enabled Solar Harvesting
Amount € 4,900,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 828753 
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2021
Description DTP 2018-19 University of Warwick
Amount £4,436,536 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R513374/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 09/2023
Description EPRSC Resource Only Strategic Equipment: the Warwick Analytical Science Centre
Amount £953,764 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/V007688/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2020 
End 09/2024
Description EPSRC Core Equipment Award 2020: University of Warwick
Amount £875,000 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/V036211/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2020 
End 05/2022
Description Optoelectronic properties of hybrid metal halide perovskites: from nanoscale to devices
Amount £382,934 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/V001302/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2021 
End 07/2023
Description Photocatalysis in coordination cages using supramolecular arrays of chromophores
Amount £473,930 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/R03382X/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 06/2021
Description Russia Global Exchange Programme
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation Russian Science Foundation 
Sector Public
Country Russian Federation
Start 10/2016 
End 07/2020
Description Terahertz skinometer for improved cancer prevention and treatment
Amount £652,876 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/S021442/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 03/2022
Description Ultra-high voltage (>30KV) power devices through superior materials for HVDC transmission
Amount £726,523 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P017363/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2017 
End 01/2021
Title Data associated with 'Ultrafast Photodissociation Dynamics of 2-Ethylpyrrole: Adding Insight to Experiment With Ab Initio Multiple Cloning.' 
Description Ab initio multiple cloning calculated and experimental total kinetic energy release spectra, dissociation times, velocity map images and electronic state populations for the ultrafast photodissociation of 2-ethylpyrrole. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Description de Beers partnership 
Organisation De Beers Group
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Co-funding PhD studentship (50%) via the Diamond CDT (Warwick edition). Research project involves investigating the vibrations of defects in diamond. Supervision of PhD student; access to equipment funded by this award.
Collaborator Contribution Co-funding PhD studentship (50%). Partners are giving scientific direction, identifying areas of relevance to their business, providing samples.
Impact Involves researchers from Physics and Chemistry
Start Year 2020
Description Christmas Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Warwick Christmas Lecture show to the general public, attended by 1500, featuring lasers and optics experiments
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/physics/outreach/christmaslectures/