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European funding: ERC Consolidator Grants awarded to physics, mathematics, and life sciences

Outstanding research – from nanowires to supernovae

Computer rendering of nanowires (blue) that are part of an integrated photonic and quantum optical circuit.
For his ERC-funded project, Dr. Gregor Koblmüller will develop nanowires made of semiconductor materials that can be used in integrated photonic and quantum optical circuits. (image: Chris Hohmann / NIM)

Research news

Five new research projects proposed by scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) were impressive enough to be awarded Consolidator Grants by the European Research Council (ERC) this year. The selected projects are in the fields of nanosciences, solid-state physics, molecular biology, arithmetic geometry, and cosmology.

The application process for the generously funded ERC Grants is open to researchers with 7-12 years' experience since completion of a doctorate. The selected projects receive up to 2 million euros in funding from the ERC. Back in August, six TUM researchers were each awarded an ERC Starting Grant. With the announcement of the five Consolidator Grants, the number of ERC grants at TUM has now increased to 84.

Adjunct Teaching Professor Dr. Gregor Koblmüller (Physics)

In his ERC-funded research project “Quantum Nanowire Integrated Photonic Circuits” (QUANtIC), Adjunct Teaching Professor Dr. Gregor Koblmüller plans to develop nanowire structures made of semiconductor materials. These nanostructures, which are about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, are ideal for optical wave propagation, but are also narrow enough for their physical properties to be governed by quantum effects. Examples of potential applications for such nanowires might be the placement of tiny wire-shaped light sources such as nanolasers or single-photon emitters with specific characteristics directly on semiconductor chips. Such light sources could be coupled directly with integrated photonic and quantum optical circuits. That would facilitate the development of highly integrated technologies in chip-based light processing, quantum communications and “lab-on-a-chip” sensor technology.

Gregor Koblmüller has been conducting research in the Physics Department and the Walter-Schottky-Institute at TUM since 2009. He is also a member of the Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM) excellence cluster. In 2016 he acquired his habilitation at TUM with a thesis on semiconductor nanowires. For his work, he received the Arnold Sommerfeld Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, among other awards.

Prof. Dr. Frank Pollmann (Physics)

There are various phases of matter. For example, water may be liquid or solid, or gaseous, depending on the temperature and pressure. However, there are many other phases in which fascinating properties emerge from the interplay of quantum fluctuations and interactions between electrons. In superconductors, for example, electricity flows with no resistance. These phases generally occur only at low temperatures.

The research activities of Prof. Frank Pollmann focus on topological phases, which may one day become building blocks for quantum computers. Among Prof. Pollmann's areas of interest as a theoretical physicist is the prediction and classification of previously unknown phases of matter. In his DYNACQM project, now made possible through the Consolidator Grant, he plans to go a step further: he intends to predict specific dynamic characteristics of such phases and simulate them in model systems. This would make it possible to determine, for example, which materials are most suitable for implementing “exotic phases” with technical applications.

Frank Pollmann is a Professor of Theoretical Solid-State Physics at TUM. For his work, he has received the Walter Schottky Prize from the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft, among other honors. He, too, is a member of the Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM) excellence cluster.

Prof. Dr. Sherry Suyu (Physics)

The strong gravitational lensing effect occurs if a substantial mass concentration, e.g. a galaxy cluster, lies between an object in a far-away galaxy and an observer on earth. The mass concentration acts as a lens, bending light rays passing on either side of it so that multiple images of the same light source are seen.

In her ERC-funded project LENSNOVA, Prof. Sherry Suyu plans to utilize this effect. When phenomena such as supernovae are investigated, the multiple images will appear at different times due to the different optical path lengths of their light paths and gravitational delay by the lens. This time delay contains valuable information on the geometry of the universe. Moreover, the gravitational lensing effect can even help to study the beginnings of a supernova explosion. Prof. Suyu hopes that her research will shed light on the progenitors of Type Ia supernovae, dark energy, and other phenomena.

Sherry Suyu is a Professor of Observational Cosmology at TUM and heads a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics. This dual affiliation is made possible under the MaxPlanck@TUM-Program.

Prof. Dr. Eva Viehmann (Mathematics)

Around 40 years ago, the Canadian mathematician Robert Langlands proposed a set of mathematical conjectures – known today as the Langlands program – connecting number theory and representation theory. So far, only some of them have been proven.

The research area of Prof. Eva Viehmann falls under this program. Under her ERC-funded project NewtonStrat, she plans to study objects known as Shimura varieties. Mathematicians have been using these geometrical objects for some time to study the underlying concepts of the Langlands program. Prof. Viehmann, however, does not study Shimura varieties directly, but rather with the help of Newton strata, which break them down into a finite number of components. The study of these strata has recently gained fresh impetus both from representation theory and the theory of adic spaces. Due to these developments, Prof. Viehmann believes that she will be able to describe the geometry of Newton stratifications in the coming years and gain new insights applicable to the Langlands program.

Eva Viehmann has held the TUM Chair in Arithmetic Geometry since 2012. Her work has been funded with a Heisenberg Fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and an ERC Starting Grant.

Prof. Dr. Dietmar Zehn (Life Sciences)

Cytotoxic T cells protect against viral and bacterial infections by eliminating infected cells. They generally perform this function very efficiently. Exceptions occur, however: It is common in patients with hepatitis B and C or HIV infections for the function of cytotoxic T cells to be significantly suppressed. Similar effects are seen in immune responses to malignant tumors.

In his Consolidator Grant project ToCCaTa, Prof. Dietmar Zehn plans to bring about a better understanding of the fundamental molecular processes that cause the differentiation of cytotoxic T cells. Key questions include: Which mechanisms are behind the protective immune responses and what can be done to improve the artificial triggering of such responses, for example through vaccinations? When and how are the memory cells formed that provide long-term protection, and what causes immunological protection to be weakened in case of chronic infections and tumors? The goal is to utilize the results of the research to find ways to influence a certain T cell type, the CD8 T cell, and provide it with characteristics to make it more effective for both treatment and prevention purposes.

Dietmar Zehn was appointed to the Chair of Animal Physiology and Immunology at the TUM School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan  in 2015. Previous funding for his research has included an ERC Starting Grant in 2013.