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Researchers at AMOLF are continuously searching for the fundamental relationship between the architecture and interactions of complex molecular and material systems, ranging from nanophotonic structures to multicellular organisms, and their properties and functions. AMOLF performs research within the following strongly connected themes.
Mastering light on the nanoscale
In the area of nanophotonics, AMOLF researchers tame the flow, emission, and detection of light. They are seeking the absolute limits of what is possible. For example, they create structures with nanoscale dimensions, 100,000 times smaller than that of a human hair. They use these to study the interaction between light and matter down to the level of a single molecule. The measurements are also extremely accurate in terms of time. They are registered per femtosecond, one quadrillionth of a second.
Yet studying is not enough. The researchers want to manipulate light: controlling what route it takes, accelerate it, slow it down or change its colour. This endeavour yields more than just surprising physics, as managing light at the nanoscale brings many benefits for science, society and technology. Examples are more efficient and smarter LEDs, more efficient solar cells, medical diagnostics, and powerful, energy-efficient information technology based on light instead of electrons.
Light management in solar cells
There are many ways to improve solar cells. One way is to ensure that they catch as much sunlight as possible. AMOLF researchers are applying their expertise to manage light on solar cells. By capturing light in minute structures smaller than light’s own wavelength, they can control the behaviour of light and keep it in the solar cell so it can be converted into energy. The researchers are ‘stamping’ nanostructures on conventional silicon solar cells, for example. Another route is to cover the solar cells with an organic layer in which the light can be easily managed. A third route is to develop a revolutionary new type of organic solar cell in which the nanostructures are naturally present.
AMOLF wants to make solar cells more efficient by allowing them to make better use of light. It is also investigating the possibilities that would make solar cells cheaper. This would allow the price of solar energy to be reduced and that would make it more attractive for companies to switch to this clean source of energy as well.
A physics perspective on life
How can non-living molecules together form a cell, the smallest building block of life? And how can cells in turn group together to form tissues and organs such as our skin, brains and gut? Researchers at AMOLF will help solve that mystery using physics methods: quantitative experiments in which behaviors of cells and organisms such as growth, movement, and embryonic development are measured by microscopy, in combination with predictive models.
Unravelling the mystery of life is an ambitious goal. The closer we get to it the better we become at mimicking nature. For example, in strong and smart materials that can replace tissues in the human body, or an organ on a chip on which medicines can be tested.
How molecules make life possible
Without biomolecules – such as proteins – there would be no life. They are necessary for vital functions such as converting nutrients into energy, transporting substances within the body, or communication between cells. At the most minute level, researchers at AMOLF are studying how individual molecules enter into reactions with their environment to do their job well. The resolution of an optical microscope is far too low to follow processes at this nanoscale. The biomolecules are therefore imaged using advanced spectroscopic techniques. The molecules are made visible through their interaction with electromagnetic radiation in the form of visible light but also infrared radiation.
Understanding the behaviour of biomolecules will help us to understand all living organisms better. This research is therefore relevant for medicine, but it could also lead to stronger plant cultivars or to better water filters that filter out bacteria.
Designing novel materials
How to make new materials that do not occur in nature? Materials with completely new properties? For example, materials that become shorter when pulled, objects that assemble themselves just like your own body, or smart materials that observe and respond to their surroundings? With research into designer matter, AMOLF is pioneering a new area. Experiments, computer simulations and theoretical models are combined with 3D printing and nano-manufacturing. With this approach researchers are designing and constructing a wide range of designer materials: from crystal structures at the microscale via self-folding origami sheets to soft materials that can autonomously creep.
The discipline of designer matter is still in its infancy but could lead to revolutionary applications. For example, soft robots that respond to their environment, solar cells that automatically direct themselves towards the sun, or even a completely new type of medicine.