Behind the Scenes at Amsterdam Science Park - edition AMOLF and ARCNL

The latest Behind the Scenes event at Amsterdam Science Park gave visitors a taste of the future, complete with self-growing materials and extreme ultraviolet light, courtesy of cutting-edge research at AMOLF and ARCNL.

With 13 research institutions and 2500 researchers, Amsterdam Science Park isn’t short of new ideas – some of which will one day transform our daily lives. Behind the Scenes events are a chance for those studying or working at the park, as well as members of the wider community, to get acquainted with some of the park’s current research topics. In the latest version, it was the turn of AMOLF and ARCNL to open their doors, welcoming a varied group of 20 guests into some of their laboratories.

AMOLF is the Netherlands’ national research institute for the physics of functional complex matter, where the emphasis is on studying the building blocks of tomorrow’s new materials that can lead, amongst others, to healthcare and renewable energy solutions. The institute’s manager Paula van Tijn quickly sketched out the scope of AMOLF’s work: with 16 research groups, 118 papers in peer-reviewed journals every year, and 17 PhD theses, it covers enormous ground. The three lab visits had been designed to reflect that diversity. 

Dividing into two groups, guests visited labs in rotation and met the researchers. In a space dominated by nitrogen-filled gloveboxes, their glove ‘arms’ surreally outstretched, Moritz Futscher introduced us to the world of hybrid solar cells. 

His group’s experimental hybrids combine organic and inorganic materials in order to increase their efficiency. “Current inorganic silicon solar cells have a maximum efficiency of almost 27%,” he said. “Which is already close to their theoretical limit.” While a conventional inorganic solar cell relies on an incident photon exciting one electron that carries the electrical charge through the material, Futscher told us, that in organic singlet fission solar cells one incoming photon converts to two charge carriers. “By combining highly developed inorganic cells with organic singlet fission cells, the efficiency can be increased beyond the theoretical limit of a conventional inorganic solar cell, which makes the hybrid solution look promising.” He expects real-world applications of hybrid solar cells in around ten to twenty years. Cheap and easy to produce as well as more efficient than conventional inorganic solar cells, these could revolutionize solar energy.

I think it’s great that Amsterdam Science Park is opening its institutes to the outside world like this

Studying diversity in harmless E. coli bacteria might one day result in better healthcare treatments, thanks to the work conducted by Johannes Keegstra from the Systems Biology research group at AMOLF. Using state-of-the art microscopy equipment, he studies the intricate molecular reactions of the bacteria as they use their sensory machinery to move towards food and away from toxins. “By understanding these molecular processes, we could eventually understand the enormous diversity of biology on the level of individuals, for example in response to drug treatments.” said Keegstra. In the long term, this could lead to applications in  a more personalized medicine.

Researchers in AMOLF’s Self-Organizing Matter group build microscale structures that resemble shapes such as flowers and spirals. This is done using a mineralization process that is inspired by mechanisms that are responsible for the growth of biominerals such as seashells and bones. The group’s PhD student Lukas Helmbrecht explained how the group rationally designs the shape of these tiny structures by first mixing two simple chemicals and then carefully controlling the reaction conditions. 

After pondering the future of materials that effectively grow themselves, it was time for guests to visit the neighbouring institute ARCNL (the Advanced Research Center for Nanolithography). ARCNL focuses on the fundamental physics involved in current and future key technologies in nanolithography, primarily for the semiconductor industry.

In the nanophotochemistry lab, researcher Robbert Bloem introduced us to the latest chip manufacturing technique, which uses extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light that has a wavelength of only 13.5 nanometer. Bloem explained how his group is using ultra-short-pulse lasers in order to study the chemical processes that take place after materials absorb EUV light. Answers to these questions are urgent to make the process more efficient and to enable it to be used in high volume production.

But where does EUV light come from? In the lab next door, Francesco Torretti of the Atomic Plasma Processes group explained that to produce it you need to take a laser and shoot it at a droplet of molten tin, resulting in an EUV-emitting plasma. “The system is messy, but it’s the best we have,” said Torretti, demonstrating the ‘droplet chamber’ where his group studies the process so that it can hopefully be made more efficient. 

I really liked the fact that the researchers made their work so accessible and easy to understand

Drinks and reactions
Over post-event drinks in Café Maslow, guests agreed that the lab visits had been fascinating. “I’m studying philosophy and politics, so this is a very different world for me,” said Flavia Tienes, an Amsterdam University College exchange student from Berlin. “I’m really impressed that these research institutes open their doors in this way, and the visits have given me an interesting insight into what they do. One thing that particularly impressed me was the work in self-growing structures, and the fact that these have a sort of built-in diversity.”

Claire Visser, a management consultant at ABN AMRO, was also impressed by the self-growing structures. “It’s intriguing to think that we could grow bone one day,” she said. “I really liked the fact that the researchers made their work so accessible and easy to understand.” For Renee Balers, a business owner, the event had been a chance to find out more about EUV. “I have to say the other presentations were equally interesting though,” he said.

Living nearby, as well as having a physics degree, had inspired artist Daan Noppen to join the visits. “I think it’s great that Amsterdam Science Park is opening up its institutes to the outside world like this,” he said. “I’ve always wondered what they do in AMOLF – and now I know.”