Materials research meets cosmology

This year’s Max Rössler Prize goes to Nicola Spaldin, a professor of materials theory in the Department of Materials at ETH Zurich. The scientist receives the award, which includes CHF 200,000 in prize money, in recognition of her interdisciplinary and pioneering research.

June 13, 2012 - by Simone Ulmer

Fundamental theories of physics endeavour to answer one of the most intriguing questions of basic science if not of human knowledge -- how our universe works. The theories are confirmed or refuted by measuring the values of properties that they predict for elementary particles such as the electron. For this, you need particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern – or materials scientists like Nicola Spaldin. With the aid of the CSCS supercomputer Monte Rosa, the forty-three-year-old researcher is on the lookout for new materials. Magneto-electric materials are of particular interest to Spaldin, among which she has invented a material that allows one fundamental property – the electric dipole moment of the electron – to be measured with high accuracy.   

Creating materials on the supercomputer

The prize gives the innovative young researcher, whose team at ETH Zurich is part of the Advanced Scientific Computing (PASC) platform, an additional boost in her research. Besides high-performance computers, intensive discussions on scientific problems and issues are essential for Spaldin and her fifteen-strong interdisciplinary team, whose research hovers at the threshold between theoretical and solid-state chemistry and the fields of condensed matter and mineral physics. Based on these discussions, they then formulate requirements for a material in the form of equations and algorithms, which a supercomputer can use to model previously unknown materials with previously unknown properties or functionalities – materials that combine strong magnetism and good electrical behaviour, for instance; functionalities that were not previously found together in one material. 

The scientist is looking to promote the scientific exchange of ideas more intensively with the CHF 200,000 the Max Rössler Prize carries: “I will use the prize money in part to organise small-group intense discussions between between my research group and external researchers, to really push forward new areas of collaborative research.”

Spaldin uses so-called first-principles methods for her research. In other words, exact rather than approximate solutions are sought via the fundamental laws of physics. For instance, Spaldin researches the physical bases of novel substances and their potential technical significance. Apart from the exotic materials that can be used to measure elementary particles, the researcher also studies more technologically applied materials. By combining electrical and magnetic properties, for example, future devices that use magnets will be both smaller in size and use much less energy.

Fascination with electrons

Most of all, the scientist is fascinated by electrons in her research. “As far as I’m concerned, the most exciting question is why electrons behave so exotically when they combine in large numbers in a material  -- behaviour such as superconductivity, for example.” Spaldin has been collaborating with experimental scientists who produce and test the materials that she designs with supercomputers. In order to conduct the experimental part herself in future, the creative researcher has now set up her own lab at ETH Zurich. 

Profile:
British scientist Nicola Spaldin studied geology and chemistry at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain before completing a PhD in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1996. After a stint as a postdoctoral student at Yale University, New Haven, she took up an assistant professorship (1997 – 2001) and associate professorship (2001 – 2006) at the University of California’s Department of Materials in Santa Barbara. In 2006 she was made a full professor at the University of California before joining ETH Zurich in 2011.
Max Rössler Prize:
In 2007 mathematician and ETH-Zurich graduate Dr. Max Rössler donated ten million CHF to the ETH-Zurich Foundation. The prize sponsors a particularly promising young ETH-Zurich professor in the expansion phase of his or her research career with a view to boosting the potential of a scientist in the field of natural sciences and technology.