K-State physicists earn $90.8 million grant

Surjendu Bhattacharyya and Keyu Chen are researchers in the James R. Macdonald Laboratory. Their work with the lab includes using lasers to observe molecular movement. (Photo courtesy of Surjendu Bhattacharyya)

A team of researchers, including the leading physicists of the James R. Macdonald Laboratory (JRML) at Kansas State, has been awarded a $90.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Artem Rudenko, director of the Macdonald lab, said the grant was for work he and Daniel Rolles are doing with Arizona State University to build an X-ray laser in Tempe, Arizona. 

“A team of researchers in Arizona … received some money to do development work, and then put together a pretty big team of scientists, which we are part of,” Rudenko said. “This team put together a proposal to build a $90 million scale facility in Arizona which will be an X-ray laser slightly smaller than the machines in California or Hamburg [Germany].”

Rudenko said this facility will be used by physicists from all over the world to do atomic, molecular and optical research.

“It will make Arizona more accessible to other researchers across the U.S. and so on,” Rudenko said. “This year the project was approved, and we will be part of the development team. We will specifically be responsible for one of the instruments which they will provide for users at that new facility.”

Daniel Rolles, associate director of research for the Macdonald lab, said JRML focuses on research with lasers in the field of atomic molecular physics. 

“We’re looking at ultrafast processes and interactions of lasers with molecules,” Rolles said. “My emphasis is really on ultrafast, which is a term we use. It means femtosecond, which is a millionth of a billionth of a second. That’s the timescale on which molecules move around. Any sort of reaction we think of, especially when it’s triggered by sunlight or ultraviolet light, will happen on that timescale. We’re focused on trying to visualize these reactions that are underpinning a lot of physics and chemistry.” 

Rudenko said the only way to visualize the movement of atoms is by using lasers like the ones in the Macdonald lab. 

“Molecules are tiny objects,” Rudenko said. “What we’re really interested in is how the atoms in those molecules move around as they break apart or restructure, which happens very fast. The only experimental tool or technical tool which allows us to access it are those laser pulses which are shorter than those [femtoseconds].”

Surjendu Bhattacharyya, postdoctoral in the Macdonald lab, said the research done by JRML aims to find ways to control molecular reactions. 

“These reactions can trigger events that can cause global warming or other atmospheric events across the world,” Bhattacharyya said. “If we want to understand how to control these events, essentially we need to understand each and every phenomena microscopically.” 

Rudenko said the research JRML is conducting is vital for the future of technology.

“If we weren’t doing our research, there would be no next-generation computer in the store,” Rudenko said. “They rely on the basic knowledge we create. … Computers are faster these days than they were 20 years ago by far, but they hit a hard limit on how fast electronics can be. We want to get faster.”

Rudenko said JRML researchers are trying to achieve this goal through the use of laser pulses.

“The only thing faster than current electronics are those light pulses,” Rudenko said. “With these molecules, we can build a simple switch where we shoot our laser pulse, and it becomes a straight thing which conducts electricity. Then, we shoot another pulse, and we close it. We can do this extremely fast. This is far from technical reality right now. … If we don’t explore this we’ll never make this step. We’ll never make this breakthrough, and that’s the main reason people should care about this.” 

Rolles said the Macdonald lab always had a positive reputation among physicists. 

“Back 20 to 30 years ago and still nowadays, people come to JRML to do experiments and collaborations with us,” Rolles said. “I think this is how that reputation spreads. It’s a state-of-the-art facility with state-of-the-art lasers and instruments, so it’s natural that people come here and talk about it.”