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European Research Council splashes €4m on photonics projects

27 Apr 2016

Two grants have been awarded to biological imaging and laser material research projects in Germany.

The European Research Council, which supports research projects across Europe in order to “promote visionary projects and to develop new interdisciplinary fields of knowledge” has announced that two new photonics-related projects are to benefit from funding totaling €4 million.

Biomedical imaging

Prof. Vasilis Ntziachristos, Director of the Institute of Biological and Medical Imaging (IBMI) at Helmholtz Zentrum München has been awarded one of the ERC’s most prestigious scientific awards, an Advanced Grant, worth a total of €2.49 million over the next five years.

Prof. Ntziachristos pioneered the field of opto-acoustic tomography, a non-invasive imaging technique and his research focuses on the continuous improvement of the modality and its clinical translation. He said there is "immense potential" in the technology to be developed in project PREMSOT (Precision Multi-Spectral Optoacoustic Tomography for Discovery Diagnosis and Intervention).

The technology is expected to enable precise, non-invasive 3D deep tissue imaging by utilizing weak laser pulses to slightly heat the targeted region in the body. As a consequence, the tissue briefly expands and generates ultrasound waves, which are detected by appropriate sensors and converted into three-dimensional images.

This technique allows direct long-term patient monitoring without exposure to radiation or a contrast medium. “The technology has already demonstrated initial success in determining metastatic disease in melanoma patients,” said Prof. Ntziachristos. “Thanks to the MSOT technology, detection of this cancer type could now be achieved earlier without the need for biopsies or surgery.” Additional clinical MSOT studies in various fields of application including breast and thyroid cancer as well as peripheral atherosclerosis are currently underway.

Live monitoring of drug action

MSOT can also be applied to monitor or assess drug distribution or oxygen saturation in tissues, both identified as unmet clinical needs by the clinical end users. With the grant money approved for PREMSOT, Prof. Ntziachristos' team will develop a low-cost, portable device for human use. In the future, this imaging platform may be used during surgery or in diagnostics to assess pathophysiological parameters in real time and to monitor treatment efficacy.

From a technical point of view, Prof. Ntziachristos and his team intend to further improve the sensitivity of the technology in order to reliably visualize inflammation as well as metabolic and neurologic parameters. PREMSOT is funded within the EU framework Horizon 2020 as one of the 277 projects selected from a total of approximately 2,000 submissions.

A new laser based on transition metal dichalcogenides

Building more powerful computers, solar cells or lasers are the objectives of many research groups around the globe. Among them, Dr. Christian Schneider, from Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg, Germany, is studying promising materials for novel lasers and quantum light sources. The ERC has recently awarded him €1.5 million to further develop his work.

For the past five years or so, the scientific community has focused on the material class of transition metal dichalcogenides. These materials are typically made of molybdenum or tungsten, for example, complemented with sulphur, selenium or tellurium. Dr. Schneider believes these materials are interesting for a number of reasons: “They are reasonably priced, relatively easy to prepare in extremely thin and stable layers that consist of a single layer of atoms, and they have semiconducting properties – making them an ideal material for optoelectronics,” he said.

"We want to find out to what extent the materials are suitable for optoelectronics and quantum photonics, and in particular for investigating novel laser-like light sources," he said. The ERC Starting grant will be used to funds his unLiMIt2D project, allowing Schneider to add two doctoral students and one postdoc to his team.

Dr. Schneider added, “We will try to build a laser-like prototype. The aim is to develop not a standard laser, but a polariton laser that may consume much less energy. Such devices are maybe even more interesting from a fundamental point of view, since they share many similarities with Bose-Einstein condensates in solid state.”

The Würzburg physicists have already built a polariton laser in an international project which they first presented in Nature in 2013. The coming years will show whether polariton lasers can also be implemented on the basis of transition metal dichalcogenides.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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