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New campus will push physics to the limit

Barbara Ercolano’s research focuses on understanding planetary formation.Credit: LMU Munich

“You’ll be able to breathe physics on our new campus,” says Barbara Ercolano, an astrophysicist at LMU Munich. Over the next ten years she and colleagues from across the university will move to a new, purpose-built, physics campus in the centre of the city. Bringing together research and teaching on subjects including nanotechnology, quantum and theoretical physics, astronomy and biophysics, the new campus will cement LMU Munich’s reputation as a leader in the field.

The new physical environment is intended to encourage the kinds of social interactions that spark creativity and insights. “Both staff and students will benefit from the kind of informal conversations that lead to new ideas,” says Ercolano.

Her research focuses on planet formation, and on understanding the conditions that produced the wealth and diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy. “We run large-scale computer simulations of the birth environments of planetary systems and compare the results with observations from, for example, ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in northern Chile),” she explains.

After a star is born from interstellar clouds, the leftover gas and dust forms a disc around the star, from which planets may form. The process of planet formation is strongly influenced by the dynamics of dust and gas in the disc, as well as by the irradiation from the young star. “Over a million years or so, planets form from the continuous collision of dust particles,” Ercolano says.

This research aims to help determine the conditions required to form a habitable planet like Earth. “Life emergence may not be that hard, but maintaining the conditions for life to persist and evolve is very difficult,” she adds.

Science of the small

LMU Munich’s new physics campus will border the largest urban park in Europe, the Englischer Garten. Work is well under way, and the new site opened its first building last year. This Nano-Institute, largely funded by the Bavarian government’s green energy initiative SolTech, offers state-of-the-art facilities to help scientists find ways to harness the unique properties of nanomaterials, with a focus on photonics and energy sciences at the nanoscale.

Stefan Maier’s team is researching how light interacts with nanostructures.Credit: LMU Munich

“The institute includes cleanrooms, chemical synthesis facilities, and a large variety of characterization laboratories, with laser facilities spanning from the UV to the terahertz,” says nanophotonics researcher Stefan Maier, who moved to LMU in 2018 after a decade at Imperial College London. “LMU’s Physics Department is probably one of the most exciting places in Europe at the moment,” he adds.

Last year, the university’s physics faculty received funding from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) to develop three Clusters of Excellence around energy (e-conversion), quantum science and technology (MCQST) and the origins of life and the universe (ORIGINS). “This funding will consolidate long-term research programmes in these fields and further enhance the department’s international reputation,” says Maier.

Many Nobel Prize-winning physicists have studied, taught and researched at LMU, including Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Max von Laue, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and Theodor Hänsch. “The university played a key role in the development of quantum mechanics,” says Maier. “And in the 1970s, semiconductor physics and biophysics really took off here.”

Building on this legacy, his team focuses on modifying how light interacts with nanostructures. “We are working on new and efficient ways to harvest light into very small areas to enhance energy conversion,” he says. They are also exploring applications in optoelectronics and sensing technologies. His group’s latest paper in Nature Nanotechnology describes a holographic video display based on surfaces with a distinct nanostructure arrangement that greatly enhances storage capabilities.

Building for the future

The breakthroughs of the 21st century will come from cooperative and interdisciplinary research, says Maier. “There is already a very strong collaborative environment here at LMU, and we also have The Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Max Plank Institute on our doorstep,” he adds. “Easy access to such wide-ranging expertise is particularly useful for students.”

Tapping into local expertise helps young researchers as well. Ercolano joined LMU Munich in 2010 after working in the UK and the US. Moving to Germany was not an easy decision, but she has no regrets. “The research environment in Munich is so rich. There are so many opportunities for young researchers, and LMU is incredibly supportive,” she says. Ercolano started in the UNIVERSE excellence cluster, before joining ORIGINS. “This gave me the opportunity to meet researchers in different areas of physics, and I felt I could address more complex, fundamental questions rather than being limited to those that I could approach working on my own.”

Ercolano has been teaching in English in the LMU’s master’s programme, and will start teaching a bachelor degree course in German next semester.

LMU Munich offers two bachelor's degrees and four master's degrees across a diverse range of physics topics. The master’s programmes include a 12-month research project that gives students the skills and experience they need to pursue further research in industry or academia.

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