He was just writing Bloch’s theorem on the board when his mobile phone started buzzing. His phone never rang during lectures. This unusual event amused the students, who knew that he would tease them if it happened to them. After Rupert Huber finished explaining to his students how electrons can be accelerated in solids, he called back. It was the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) who informed him that he had received the most important research award in Germany, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize (YouTube video in German).
The award recognises the physicist’s outstanding experimental work in terahertz and solid-state physics at the interface between optics and electronics. Huber, who grew up in Upper Bavaria near lake Chiemsee, earned his doctorate in 2003 at the Technical University of Munich. He first achieved prominence with his research on phenomena faster than a cycle of light. After spending two years as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Berkeley, Huber returned to Germany, where he led a DFG-funded Emmy Noether independent junior research group in Konstanz. In 2010, he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Regensburg, where he works at the Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics. The innovative idea behind Huber’s field of research is the use of atomically strong light fields as alternating voltages in solid-state systems in order to observe completely new quantum phenomena on very short timescales.
“Experimental physics is a team sport,” Huber says. The physicist, who enjoys exploring the world with his children, won numerous national and international awards, among them 13 Best Lecture Awards from his faculty. He brings the same passion to his teaching as his research, and motivation is his keyword: Huber tries to motivate his students to perform at their highest capability. “I am convinced that we can still grow beyond ourselves as adults if we only want to.”
Currently, the Huber group consists, among others, of seven master students, 15 PhD students and four postdocs from a variety of countries. Some of them have received awards from the international scientific community. His alumni are widely scattered, many of them now leading their own research group in the US, the UK, South Korea, India, or Germany. Others contribute their expertise to large listed companies.
“Our scientific focus is on ultrafast phenomena dominating the physics of solids, molecules, and custom-tailored nanostructures”, Huber explains. “We aim to understand and control the microscopic interplay between elementary degrees of freedom and exploit this knowledge to design quantum systems with novel functionalities.”
As their essential toolbox, Huber and his team rely on highly intense sources of ultrashort phase-locked laser pulses as well as field-sensitive detectors for the entire electromagnetic spectrum: “Similarly to an extreme slow-motion camera, this technology allows us to capture and control elementary quantum dynamics on the femtosecond scale.” Just to remind you: a femtosecond is one-millionth of one-billionth of a second (1 fs = 10-15 s). In particular, the availability of record-intense and ultrashort electric and magnetic field transients allows researchers to study matter under unprecedented high-field conditions. Exciting new pathways in quantum electronics, optics, and electrodynamics have been opened up. How can this knowledge influence our daily life? Possibly in much faster and greener computers, most efficient solar cells, or loss-free power lines.
The Huber group discovered that it is not possible to unambiguously determine the energy of the electrons within a very short time span after excitation by the strong light field; instead, the electrons are in oscillating mixed states that cancel each other out or amplify each other depending on the orientation of the light field. In a similar way to collision experiments in elementary particle accelerators, Huber was also able to deliberately collide quasiparticles in solids. These collisions produce ultrashort flashes of light which provide information about the structure of the quasiparticles and could be used in future quantum information processing.
By bringing ultrafast sampling to atomic-resolution microscopes, the Huber group recorded—in close collaboration with their colleagues in Jascha Repp’s group—the first ever ultraslow-motion movie of a vibrating single molecule over its intrinsic length and time scales. This breakthrough forms the basis of the work that will be done at the Regensburg Center for Ultrafast Nanoscopy (RUN), a largescale interdisciplinary research facility, which will open its gates in 2023. The RUN will provide a unique research environment for Rupert Huber and his colleagues, where the motion of the microscopic building blocks of matter can be directly visualized in nanoscopic slow-motion movies—laying the foundation for a new level of understanding of the nanocosmos in all its complexity and beauty.
To find out about future opportunities at RUN, keep an eye on the university website or contact one of the people mentioned in the info box.
How to visualize the nanocosmos in super slow-motion movies? While many renowned research institutes around the world are pursuing this vision, so far only researchers at the University of Regensburg have succeeded in capturing the motion of an electronic orbital of a single molecule directly in space and time.
Vision: A first-class interdisciplinary research environment seeking to break new ground at the interfaces of physics, biology, and chemistry, and build bridges between basic science and innovative technology development.
Research focus: Using RUN’s atomic-resolution microscope, researchers will be able to track the interplay of the nanoscopic building blocks of matter in moving images in a spatially resolved and time-resolved manner. Unlike time-integrated still images, these moving images make it possible to gain a more detailed understanding of a nanocosmos that is constantly in motion, and thus to address key questions in basic research—for example, to understand vital processes in a cell, or to control the functionality of quantum materials and chemical reactions optically.
Potential for Technology Transfer: Applications are expected in chemical reaction control, process optimization, photocatalysis and optogenetics, electronics, and data storage, as well as in molecular nanotechnology and optoelectronics, such as solar cells and OLEDs.
Total investment: 47 million euros.