Efrén Navarro (Spain, 2018) and Gonzalo Abellán (Spain, 2018) completed their respective PhDs in Nanoscience and Molecular Nanotechnology at the University of Valencia. After advancing their careers at renowned centres in the United States and Germany, respectively, both ended up at the same research centre: the Institute of Molecular Science at the University of Valencia, thanks to the “la Caixa” Junior Leader postdoctoral fellowships.
Their fields of study also happened to coincide, as both are focusing their research on two-dimensional materials, which are characterized by being extremely thin—only a few atoms thick. Their projects have recently been awarded Starting Grants by the European Research Council (ERC). These grants, each worth €1.5 million over a 5-year period, are aimed at postdoctoral researchers with research experience between 2 and 7 years.
Can crystals unravel new states of matter?
This is the question Efrén wishes to answer with his research. “The question I asked myself daily was how I could build bridges between physics and chemistry. Using chemistry, materials can be created on demand to cater to the exacting requirements of studies involving experimental quantum physics”, he explains.
His research is based on the physical study of artificial crystalline structures that are only a few atoms thick, in which magnetic and electrical properties are combined.
“The integration of these structures in devices is a firm step towards a new generation of nanoelectronic devices that are easier to produce and more energy efficient”, he summarises.
Can new materials with spectacular properties be created?
On the other hand, Gonzalo focuses his project on studying Group 15 elements of the periodic table: phosphorus, arsenic, antimony and bismuth. “Graphene is a two-dimensional material par excellence; they call it the material of the 21st century. It is attracting a lot of attention despite its limitation, which is its low chemical reactivity”, Gonzalo explains.
“It has been discovered that Group 15 elements of the periodic table crystallise in a similar way to graphite—in sheets. So, we can isolate a single sheet of phosphorus or antimony. When a single sheet is isolated, its physical properties are different. As an isolated sheet is transparent, it can be used in optical devices. What’s more, it has a large surface area. This means that the entire surface is made up of this material and all the atoms are exposed”, he sums up.
“In this case, their chemical reactivity is higher. This means that they can react with a large number of molecules and, for a chemist, this is a major breakthrough because in order to modify the properties of a certain material, it is necessary to carry out chemical reactions. If the material were only slightly reactive, our efforts would be greatly limited”, he concludes.These newly discovered properties will lead to improved applications in different fields such as energy storage, biomedicine or catalysis, which is the process by which the speed of a chemical reaction is increased.