North­eastern Uni­ver­sity physics pro­fessor Arun Bansil has received a three-​​year, $1 mil­lion grant from the United States Depart­ment of Energy to develop the next gen­er­a­tion of the­o­ret­ical tools to under­stand what hap­pens when pho­tons are smashed into mate­rials that trans­form into new states of matter.

Bansil, the founding director of Northeastern’s Advanced Sci­en­tific Com­pu­ta­tion Center, will oversee an inter­na­tional team of 30 sci­en­tists from top labs and research uni­ver­si­ties, including Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, Berkeley, Stan­ford and Princeton. Other mem­bers of Bansil’s research team include pro­fessor Robert Markiewicz and senior research sci­en­tist Bernardo Barbiellini-​​Amidei, both of the North­eastern physics depart­ment. 

“It is good to see that North­eastern is taking the lead in this exciting project involving a stellar, world­wide group of insti­tu­tions,” Bansil said. 

The research will yield new insight into how elec­trons behave in com­plex mate­rials and how excited elec­trons lose energy. This under­standing is key to designing new mate­rials for a wide range of appli­ca­tions, including the devel­op­ment of more effi­cient solar cells, longer-​​lasting and higher-​​capacity bat­teries and more envi­ron­men­tally friendly cat­a­lysts for energy pro­duc­tion, Bansil said. 

The researchers will work to under­stand an emerging field of sci­ence focused on the inter­ac­tion between light and matter. In related exper­i­ments, sci­en­tists excite matter through a con­trolled burst of pho­tons or light energy. Then, they probe the prop­er­ties of the mate­rial by firing a second beam of light at very short time inter­vals as the mate­rial relax­es­back to its orig­inal state.

“A large frac­tion of sci­ence looks at things when prop­er­ties are not changing over time,” Bansil said. “Now, new tools let sci­en­tists observe what hap­pens when you put enough energy into a mate­rial, causing it to go out of equi­lib­rium. 

“This opens up unprece­dented new oppor­tu­ni­ties for inves­ti­gating and con­trol­ling matter at the atomic level.”

During his 35-​​year career at North­eastern, Bansil’s research has focused on under­standing how elec­trons behave in novel mate­rials and how these elec­trons can be probed by modern spec­tro­scopic tech­niques. His research has been fea­tured in the jour­nals Nature and Science. Bansil founded the ELMO Lab­o­ra­tory for sci­ence edu­ca­tion at North­eastern and the PASTEL (Part­ner­ship for Arts, Sci­ence and Tech­nology Learning) pro­gram for informal sci­ence edu­ca­tion in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Boston’s major art and sci­ence museums.

Pre­vious cov­erage:
Unrav­eling the mys­teries of high tem­per­a­ture super­con­duc­tors (May 6, 2011)
Dough­nuts, soccer balls and exotic topo­log­ical insu­la­tors (April 29, 2011)