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Bundled energy: research with lasers

Arnulf Materny, Professor in Chemical Physics at Jacobs University


July 3, 2017

“Star Wars” made them mainstream: lasers – colorful rays of light full of energy. Scientifically speaking: electromagnetic waves that are mostly of a single color, extremely intensive and highly bundled. These are the tools used by Arnulf Materny, Professor in Chemical Physics at Jacobs University. Using laser technology, Materny decodes the material characteristics or the exact stages of chemical processes.

His path in life seemed predestined already while he was at school: “The physics room is his castle”, was said of him in the college yearbook. He now spends his time predominantly in laboratories equipped with extremely powerful lasers. Born in Upper Franconia, he is involved in two highly relevant research fields: Raman laser spectroscopy, which tends to be used in applied research, and Femto laser spectroscopy, used in basic research. The numerous international awards in his office bear witness to his scientific achievements in these areas.

When light encounters molecules, it is almost completely reflected back unchanged. A small part of the energy of light, however, is transferred to the molecules and makes them vibrate. This changes the light that is reflected back and its frequency becomes a little higher or lower. Such an effect, named after Indian Nobel laureate C. V. Raman, is characteristic for the respective molecule; it is full of information. Raman spectroscopy is used in many areas: from textile testing to food safety, from cancer research to environmental protection. With Raman spectroscopy, practically any molecule can be investigated without having to elaborately prepare the object of investigation and without destroying it.

Arnulf Materny’s actual scientific home is in Femto spectroscopy, however. Chemical reactions and biological processes can happen very, very quickly. A femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second. Hard to imagine? Light takes 100 femtoseconds to travel the width of a human hair, and one second to reach the moon. Materny’s laboratory looks a little like the strobe lights in a disco – ultrashort flashes of light provide snapshots of chemical reactions. Repeated measurements occurring in quick succession make it possible to obtain an analysis virtually in slow motion.

Materny and his working group are pioneers in this field; they are involved in basic research. Semiconductors are optimized and electronic components such as organic solar cells tested using Femto laser spectroscopy. However, it can also contribute to gaining a better understanding of the interactions between metallic surfaces and adherent molecules.

Materny has been conducting research at Jacobs University since 2001. His interest in science and technology runs in the family: his father was a physicist and mathematician, his daughter is studying mechanical engineering and his son intends to study electrical engineering. Materny himself studied in Bayreuth and Würzburg before a research trip took him to the renowned California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. There, he undertook research as part of Nobel laureate Ahmed H. Zewail’s working group. After returning to Germany, he qualified as a professor in Würzburg.

The 55-year old loves to spend time on his bicycle for relaxation. He cycles from his house in Lemwerder to Jacobs University come rain or shine. In the summer, he will take a long trip: 2,500 km through south-eastern Europe with little luggage. Instead of concerning himself with processes in ultrashort femtoseconds, he will slow down, relax and enjoy nature.


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