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Freie Universitaet Berlin: Experimental Physicist Robert Bittl Receives ERC Synergy Grant Together with an International Team of Researchers

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Professor Robert Bittl, an experimental physicist at Freie Universität Berlin, is to receive over two million euros through an ERC Synergy Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) as part of a joint international research project. Four other researchers from four different countries will receive funding for the “Chirality and Spin Selectivity in Electron Transfer Processes: From Quantum Detection to Quantum Enabled Technologies – CASTLe” project. The ERC’s funding will amount to almost nine million euros in total. This is the first time that Freie Universität Berlin has received part of an ERC Synergy Grant.

Robert Bittl is an experimental physicist and expert in electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy and spin dynamics in biophysics as well as light energy conversion materials. He earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at Technische Universität München and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois and University of Stuttgart. He was awarded his postdoctoral university instruction qualifications in physical chemistry at Technische Universität Berlin and has been a professor of experimental physics at Freie Universität Berlin since 2001.

The project that will be funded through the ERC Synergy Grant will focus on chirality (“handedness,” a word derived from the Ancient Greek for “hand”). This is an extremely important property in physics and chemistry. It appears in elementary particles like photons as well as in the basic building blocks of the body (such as amino acids, which make up proteins, and nucleic acids, which make up genetic material). Many other molecules are “chiral” and often display a preferred chirality in nature. “Recently it has been observed that transporting electrons through chiral molecules between two electrodes results in a clear preferred direction for the electrons’ intrinsic angular momentum (spin) in relation to the direction of transport,” explains Bittl. “Because this effect takes place even at room temperature, it could be useful in different applications.” This effect of spin polarization is called “chirality-induced spin selectivity” (CISS). The spin polarization that can be achieved in this manner can be used to initialize quantum bits, for example. The long-term goal of the CASTLe research project is to transform the CISS effect from a phenomenon that is not yet fully understood to a platform for developing applications in quantum technology, such as quantum computers and quantum sensors.

The research project, which is set to last six years, will begin work in spring 2023. In addition to Professor Bittl, the principal investigators include Italian chemist Roberta Sessoli from Università degli Studi di Firenze, American physical chemist Michael R. Wasielewski from Northwestern University, and Italian physicist Stefano Carretta from Università degli studi di Parma. The group will also cooperate closely with the Israeli physicist Ron Naaman, a pioneer in CISS research from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Bittl’s working group at Freie Universität Berlin includes three other research assistants who will also be working on the CASTLe project.

ERC Synergy Grants support small groups of two to four principal investigators to jointly address ambitious research problems that could not be addressed by the individual researchers and their teams working alone. The projects should enable substantial advances at the frontiers of knowledge, stemming, for example, from the cross-fertilization of scientific fields, from new productive lines of enquiry, or new methods and techniques, including unconventional approaches and investigations at the interface between established disciplines.

Bittl’s working group at Freie Universität Berlin applies methods from EPR spectroscopy to questions from fields as diverse as medical physics, molecular biophysics, and solid-state physics. The researchers gain profound insights into how solar cells work on a microscopic level and a molecular understanding of the principles behind functionality of biomolecules. The EPR methods are used to study paramagnetic centers that arise from unpaired electrons in the different sample types.