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ERC Advanced Grant awarded to Alec Wodtke


(mpi-bpc) The Göttingen researcher Alec Wodtke has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. The European Research Council (ERC) is funding the chemist's work with around €2.5 million for the next five years. Together with his Dynamics at Surfaces Department at Göttingen University and the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry, Wodtke is studying how gaseous atoms and molecules collide with solid surfaces. Such "nano-crash tests” help explain the rules of physics governing chemical reactions. The grantee will use the funds to develop methods for generating ultra-short pulses of matter that allow more exact tracking of the times at which atomic collisions take place. This experimental advancement aims to bring to light important facts about photocatalysis, microelectronics and photovoltaics.

Just about everybody has this image in mind when they imagine a crash test: A car slams against another vehicle or obstacle at high force. Tests such as these allow us to investigate how vehicles behave at impact and which forces act when and where. In the laboratory, scientists also use such collision experiments under controlled conditions at the nano-scale. During “nano-crash tests”, researchers purposefully cause atoms and molecules to collide and trigger chemical reactions. The researchers’ objective is to decipher which laws of physics govern these chemical reactions. Their experiments allow conclusions to be drawn about how energy storage and conversion takes place at the atomic level and how chemical catalysts can be improved upon.

With his team, Wodtke is studying atomic collisions at the interfaces of gases and solids. To induce these reactions in a controlled manner, the scientist has developed a method that bundles gaseous atoms into a beam and directs it at solid bodies. “This is more difficult than it sounds. Due to entropy – that is, the tendency of all matter towards chaos – the gaseous atoms fly apart. We have to actively force the atoms into a beam,” explains the chemist. His pioneering method is called bunch-compression photolysis.

Wodtke now aims to further improve and ultimately utilize this method to carry out time-resolved experiments that are initiated by atomic collisions. Through these experiments, he wants to find out what happens when an atomic pulse hits a solid surface that is stimulated simultaneously by light or oscillations. "To date, there has never been a method that allowed us to track such short-duration intermediate products of chemical reactions at surfaces over time. The experiments we are planning will help us better understand the chemistry of surfaces and optimize catalysts,” the grantee states.

Alec Wodtke studied chemistry at the University of Utah (USA) and earned his doctoral degree in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley (USA) in 1986. After two years as a post-doc at the former MPI for Fluid Dynamics (now: the MPI for Dynamics and Self-Organisation) in Göttingen, he worked on his research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, CA (USA) from 1988 to 2010. In 2010, following a joint proposal by Göttingen University and the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, he was distinguished with the offer of an Alexander von Humboldt professorship and, since then, has been professor at Göttingen University as well as Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. There, he manages the Dynamics at Surfaces Department.

Since 2008, the European Research Council (ERC) has been awarding ERC Advanced Grants. Researchers with a track record of significant research achievements in the last 10 years working as independent group leaders are eligible to apply. The success rate of only ten per cent shows how competitive these grants are. This year's tenth annual call for proposals received 2400 applications. In total, the ERC has awarded 231 grants with an overall budget of €540 million. The individual grant projects are funded for a maximum of five years, generally with a grant of up to €2.5 million.

Professor Alec Wodtke, Dynamics at Surfaces Department
Göttingen University and Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry
Phone: +49 551 201-1261, +49 551 39-20072
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