Daniel McCarron, assistant professor of physics, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will receive $645,000 over five years for his work on the development of techniques to trap large groups of molecules and cool them to temperatures near absolute zero. The possible control of molecules at this low temperature provides access to new research applications, such as quantum computers that can leverage the laws of quantum mechanics to outperform classical computers.
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
August 19, 2019 – Anna Zarra Aldrich ’20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research
When Carlos Trallero started his academic career in physics, he had no idea he would become a pioneer in a field of research that uses high-power lasers to investigate atomic and molecular physical phenomena.
Originally from Cuba, where there isn’t much funding for experimental research, Trallero began his academic career by studying theoretical physics. But as a senior graduate student at Stony Brook University, he got the chance to work in a lab doing experimental work and quickly recognized it was his true passion.
“I talked to a professor doing experimentation with ultra-fast lasers and I fell in love with it. And at first, I sucked at it — I was horrible,” says the professor of physics who is now working with four research grants funding separate investigations.
Trallero works with very short laser beams, with an emphasis onvery short. The lasers he uses can pulse with attosecond precision. As a comparison, there are as many attoseconds in one second as there have been seconds in the entire history of the universe since the Big Bang.
It takes light half an attosecond to cross the orbit of hydrogen, the smallest atom. When trying to study something that fast, scientists need the kind of precision the lasers Trallero can offer. The goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of how electrons, one of the fundamental atomic building blocks in the universe, move and react to light. By understanding the physics of electron movement, scientists could improve the design of technologies like superconductors.
“The dream is to be able to perform logistical operations like a computer at the attosecond level,” Trallero says. “It would really advance computational speeds. If you could make as many calculations in a second as there have been seconds in the history of the universe – that’s an astounding number.”
His lab is now working to break the attosecond barrier into the zeptosecond barrier which is 1,000 times faster than the attosecond.
While some of the potential applications of this research remain unknown since the field is still in its infancy, Trallero views the premise of his research as creating basic knowledge. He is investigating the atomic and molecular phenomena which determine so many things in our universe but about which we still know relatively little.
One project funded by the Department of Energy has Trallero looking at the properties of atoms and molecules in the quantum world by harnessing light waveforms at the attosecond time scale through interferometry. Interferometers provide precise measurements of molecules using two beams of light which interfere with each other. The images produced by this technology will allow Trallero to find out information about the rotational dynamics of molecules.
“In the quantum world, properties of atoms and molecules are not as simple as in the real world,” says Trallero.
Another of Trallero’s grants, from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, involves creating an incredibly bright beam. Trallero’s lab is working on taking electrons out of nanoparticles and then sending them back in, which will produce a bright, energetic light. “The process to study these dynamics has never been executed in this manner,” Trallero says.
Trallero is also working on two grants from the U.S. Navy, including one that aims to develop infrared “body heat lasers.”
Through these grants, Trallero is developing a new class of laser which is only comparable to those found at large, multinational laser facilities like the European Light Infrastructure. Compared to the technology currently available to Trallero at UConn, this new class of laser will have almost 20 times more average power than the current laser.
Developing a laser of this caliber will be incredibly useful for studying phenomena that only occur a few times per shot of the laser in real time. The laser will enable researchers to probe the molecules with X-rays and ultraviolet rays to look at their structure and is being developed through a partnership with a Canadian company, Few-cycle, and a German company, Amphos. Researchers like Trallero are able to get advanced technology for a fraction of their retail value by doing research of interest for these companies, which are constantly trying to innovate in step with the science.
“We’re only paying a fraction of the price because the company is interested in showing they can develop this kind of technology,” Trallero says. “Showing they have the capacity and showcasing what we do with, and for, them helps them gain a customer base and it helps us make major advances in basic science at the same time.”
Trallero is also considering creating spin-off tech companies based on his university inventions with graduate students and postdocs. He has developed nanoparticle technology which can help transform molecules from a liquid to a gaseous state which could be beneficial for producing aerosols.
Trallero views physics as “the broadest science” since it has unique applications to math, engineering, chemistry and, even, biology. “I try to think about particular scientific questions in a different way than perhaps other people who have been working in this field for a long time do,” Trallero says. “Often we suffer from too much in-depth specialization.”
He wants to make use of the tools from every specialty he can, and he instills this same inclination in the students working in his lab.
“They don’t know what they’re going to face in the future and by having a broad skill set and a broad mindset they’ll be prepared for anything,” Trallero says. “You’re opening your mind to more possibilities.”
On April 11th and 12 of 2019 Prof. Paul Corkum of the Joint Attosecond Laboratory (University of Ottawa and the National Research Council of Canada) visited the department. Prof. Corkum’s main area of research is on the interaction of ultrashort laser pulses with matter broadly defined. His most notable contribution is perhaps the discovery of the so-called three-step model, which has become the basis of the emerging field of attosecond science. Attoseconds, equal to 1 billionth of 1 billionth of a second (10-18 s) is the shortest time scale ever measured or controlled by humans and is at the forefront of modern optics.
Prof. Corkum is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Canadian Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. He has received many accolades throughout his career, including the Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate which is awarded to researchers who are “of Nobel class” and likely to earn the Nobel someday and the Order of Canada.
On April 12, Prof. Corkum presented the annual Edward Pollack Distinguished Lecture, entitled “Attosecond Pulses Generated in Gases and Solids”. This lecture is supported by an endowment established by the family of the late Professor Edward Pollack in 2005. Ed’s family, friends and colleagues made contributions in his memory. This special colloquium provides a presentation in Ed’s honor in the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics, his area of research expertise. This year Mrs. Rita Pollack and their three children: Cindy [U.S. Government civil servant], Lois [now a professor of applied physics at Cornell], and Howard [professor of modern languages (German) at dePauw University in Indiana] were all in attendance.
Below, dinner with the Pollack family members, UConn faculty, and guests.
An international research team headed by Dr. Aaron LaForge from the research group of Prof. Nora Berrah in the Physics department at UConn has recently discovered a new type of decay mechanism leading to highly efficient double ionization in weakly-bound systems. The team has published its results in the science journal “Nature Physics”.
Ionization is a fundamental process where energetic photons or particles strip an electron from an atom or molecule. Normally, a much weaker process is double ionization, where two electrons are simultaneously emitted, since it requires higher-order interactions such as electron correlation. However, these new results show that double ionization doesn’t necessarily need to be a minor effect and can even be the primary ionization mechanism thereby getting two electrons for the price of one.
The enhancement is likely due to double ionization proceeding through a new type of energy transfer process termed double intermolecular Coulombic decay, or dICD, for short. The experiments were performed at the synchrotron, Elettra, in Trieste, Italy. There, electrons are accelerated to near the speed of light and then rapidly undulated through an alternating magnet field. In this way, the electrons emit short wavelength light which is needed to trigger dICD. The researchers produced superfluid helium droplets, which are cryogenic, nanometer-sized matrices capable of attaching various atomic and molecular species in order to perform precise spectroscopic measurements. In this case, dimers consisting of two alkali metal atoms were attached to the surface of helium droplets. The dICD process, schematically shown in Fig. 1, occurs through an electronically excited helium atom (red), produced by the synchrotron radiation, interacting with the neighboring alkali dimer (blue and white) resulting in energy transfer and double ionization. Although an alkali dimer attached to a helium nanodroplet is a model case, dICD is potentially relevant for any system where it is energetically allowed.
dICD belongs to a special class of decay mechanisms where energy is exchanged between neighboring atoms or molecules leading to enhanced ionization rates. Seemingly ubiquitous in weakly-bound, condensed phase systems such as van der Waals clusters or hydrogen-bonded networks like water, these processes can contribute to radiation damage of biological systems by producing particularly harmful low-energy electrons. dICD could strongly enhance such effects through the production of two low-energy electrons for each intermolecular decay.
A. C. LaForge, M. Shcherbinin, F. Stienkemeier, R. Richter, R. Moshammer, T. Pfeifer & M. Mudrich, “Highly efficient double ionization of mixed alkali dimers by intermolecular Coulombic decay”, Nature Physics (2019) DOI: 10.1038/s41567-018-0376-5
Physics professor Nora Berrah has been named a 2018 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Prof. Berrah has been recognized for her distinguished contributions to the field of molecular dynamics, particularly for pioneering non-linear science using x-ray lasers and spectroscopy using synchrotron light sources.
Anna Zarra Aldrich, Office of the Vice President for Research (Photo: Trallero Lab/Kansas State Photo)
University of Connecticut physics professor Carlos Trallero has been granted $1.06 million from the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to study recollision physics at the nanoscale to help develop ultrafast electronics.
This research will enhance the knowledge base of electron recollision dynamics at the nanoscale, which can be used to develop ultrafast light-driven electronics. These applications may be made possible by cultivating an improved understanding of the interactions and knowledge of the time scales of light-induced electronic motion including collective plasmonic excitations.
Trallero and co-PIs from Kansas State University will study the response of individual gas-phase nanoparticles to intense femtosecond (10-15 seconds) laser fields using high-harmonics spectroscopy, momentum-resolved photoelectron imaging and corresponding theoretical modeling.
Earlier research on photoelectron emission from dielectric and metal nanoparticles has demonstrated that nanoparticles may be a promising system for exploiting the effects of laser-induced electron recollision due to the interplay between the laser field and the near-field of the particle.
By extending these studies to longer wavelengths (400 to 9000 nanometers) and complementing them with high-harmonic generation from nanoparticles and nanoparticle aggregates, Trallero and his team will help build a better knowledge base of electron recollision dynamics at the nanoscale.
“We predict that through this study, we will identify behaviors on the nanoscale that will differ significantly from those that have been studied at the atomic level,” said Trallero.
The UConn-led team will work on the possibilities of controlling the nanoparticle response, especially plasmonic excitations, by applying synthesized two-color fields. They will also explore harmonic generation from tailor-made nanoparticles as a potential source of intense, short-pulsed XUV light.
By generating harmonics from fractal aggregates and supper-lattices of nanoparticles, Trallero will gather information on the transition from localized molecule-like to de-localized solid-like electron-field interactions. The team also plans to study plasmonic excitations in laser pump, X-ray probe experiments using time-resolved soft X-ray scattering.
In collaboration with ultrafast physics faculty, Professors George Gibson and Nora Berrah, Trallero has started planning and building an “Ultrafast Center,” with ties to industry for research that includes an interdisciplinary group of faculty from the department of physics, the Institute of Materials Science, and the Schools of Engineering and Pharmacy. These faculty are specialized in optics, atomic and molecular physics, condensed matter, material science and engineering.
Carlos Trallero, who received his PhD in physics from Stony Brook University in 2007, joined UConn in 2017. His research focuses on attosecond science, strong field molecular spectroscopy, cohere control, higher-order harmonic generation, non-Gaussian optics, strong field science at long wavelengths and ultrafast optics.
This research is funding under DOD project number FA9550-17-1-0369.
Scientists from three major research universities successfully manipulated the outcome of a chemical reaction and, in doing so, created a rare molecular ion.
Through a process known as “controlling chemistry,” the researchers bonded an oxygen atom to two different metal atoms, creating the barium-oxygen-calcium molecular ion or BaOCa+ The same process could lead to the creation of other exotic new materials and the design of novel chemical compounds, according to the team from the University of Connecticut, University of California-Los Angeles, and University of Missouri, whose work appeared in the Sept. 29 online issue of Science.
“It’s doing chemistry with the tools of physics,” says Robin Côté, UConn physics professor and associate dean for physical sciences who co-authored the study. Côté is a leading theorist in the field of ultracold molecular ion reactions.
“Usually in chemistry you can’t see molecules react,” says Côté. “You do experiments and you get a reaction with a range of products, which can be analyzed with mass spectrometry and other tools. What our team did allowed us to image ions directly to get a much clearer picture of what is happening within the chemical reaction itself. We were able to prepare a system in an ultracold environment that was very pristine and that allowed us to see exactly how the molecules and atoms were behaving.”
Previous work had observed hypermetallic alkaline earth oxides consisting of an oxygen atom sandwiched between two identical alkaline earth atoms, such as barium or calcium.
But for the first time in this study, researchers observed compounds consisting of an oxygen atom bonded to two different metal atoms. Such compounds are believed to have unique properties resulting from the broken symmetry.
It’s nice to see that a phenomenon you envisioned at one time as too difficult to do, is indeed possible.— Robin Côté
The researchers used a host of equipment to accomplish the breakthrough – quantum chemistry computations, lasers, a hybrid ultracold atom-ion trap, and something called a “radially-coupled time-of-fight mass spectrometer.”
By trapping atoms and ions in an ultracold hybrid magneto-optical trap and then cooling them down to a temperature one one-thousandth degree above absolute zero, the scientists were able to observe a reaction between atoms and molecules that hadn’t been seen before.
See a real time image of crystal ions.
They used lasers to manipulate calcium atoms into a specific quantum state, which allowed the chemical reaction to proceed and the new molecules to form when they normally shouldn’t. To confirm their results, the researchers released the ions and molecules from their ultracold suspension, where they would then “fly” into the mass spectrometer to be analyzed and measured further.
The process could serve as a platform for gaining greater insight into chemical reaction dynamics. Armed with such knowledge, chemists and physicists could engineer specific chemical reactions and synthesize new products currently unavailable to us, such as more advanced chemical sensors, quantum computer processors, and medications with fewer side effects.
Joining Côté on the project were UConn research professor John Montgomery Jr., an expert in computational quantum chemistry, and postdoctoral researcher Ionel Simbotin. UCLA physics professor Eric Hudson, an expert in hybrid atom-ion trapping, served as the project’s principal investigator; and UCLA graduate students Prateek Puri (lead author) and Michael Mills, together with postdoctoral researcher Christian Schneider, performed the measurements. University of Missouri chemistry professor Arthur Suits rounded out the team.
Côté was the first to propose studying ultracold atom-ion systems in 2000, shortly after arriving at UConn. And, UConn physics professor emeritus Winthrop Smith, in 2001, was the first to propose using a hybrid ultracold ion-atom trap to conduct the observations in order to learn more about the fundamental processes of chemical reactions.
Experimental and theoretical physicists and chemists have been working in the field ever since. Lately, new advances in technology, such as the hybrid trap used in this study, are providing scientists the tools they need to progress.
To some extent, the study confirmed Côté’s and Smith’s proposal that hybrid atom-ion traps could be valuable tools for exploring the fundamental dynamics underlying chemical reactions.
“It’s nice to see that a phenomenon you envisioned at one time as too difficult to do, is indeed possible,” says Côté. “We did calculations showing this behavior should take place, and it is great to see that now confirmed in the lab.”
In the current study, the researchers spent more than 18 months trying to figure out what was driving the chemical reaction creating the new molecule. They analyzed experimental data, performed quantum chemistry calculations, and tested various theories in the lab. In many ways, it was like solving a mystery. The scientists knew the molecule could be formed because their UCLA peers had seen them in the hybrid ion trap. The challenge was trying to explain how it was happening.
The team ultimately determined the precise mechanisms that allowed the mixed hypermetallic earth oxide to form, which involved the amount of energy expended in the reaction and a certain spin of electrons.
“Most chemical reactions take place in the ground state, which is to say, a system’s lowest-energy state,” says Montgomery. “The use of quantum chemical calculations enabled us to understand that this particular reaction could only take place on the excited triplet state, which is a higher-energy state. This was then verified by experiments.”
That kind of precise knowledge of what exactly is occurring during a chemical reaction goes to the very core of controlling chemistry.
“When something reacts in chemistry, you can compute the outcome or products, but you can rarely control the process,” says Côté. “But if you are able to know exactly what is happening in that reaction, what components are rotating, what is spinning, what’s vibrating with this energy or that energy, and if you’re able to control those quantities, then it is feasible to design a reaction or a device to ensure a particular outcome most of the time.”
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (PHY-1205311, PHY-1415560, and DGE-1650604) and Army Research Office (W911NF-15-1-0121, W911NF-14-1-0378, and W911NF-13-1-0213).
UConn is one of seven universities working in this area under a multimillion-dollar research grant awarded by the Department of Defense. The MURI award, which stands for Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, also includes researchers from the physics departments at UCLA, Northwestern, and Temple, and from the chemistry departments at Georgia Tech, Emory, and Missouri.
As a research assistant in the physics department at UCONN, I assisted in the alignment, maintenance, and principles of operation of the various apparatuses and measurement techniques used within cold atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) experimental physics research. This included optical components, laser alignment, laser locking, saturation absorption spectroscopy, and electrodynamic ion trapping. Some specific experiments ran included measuring the fraction of a trapped, sodium atom-cloud (fe) pumped into an optically excited state using laser beams as well as measuring the temperature of a trapped, neutral atom-cloud via spatio-temporal fluorescence imaging.