Prestigious ERC Advanced Grants awarded to three UvA researchers

31 March 2016

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a prestigious Advanced Grant to Prof. Peter Schoenmakers, Prof. Albert Polman and Prof. Huib Bakker, all three of whom work at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Schoenmakers receives this grant for his research project ‘Separation Technology for A Million Peaks’ (STAMP); Polman for the development of time-resolved cathodoluminescence microscopy, and Bakker for his research into proton conduction in structured water.

The grant will allow Schoenmakers to develop new high-performance separation technology capable of separating up to a million chemical compounds overnight. Polman will use his ERC Advanced Grant for the development of time-resolved cathodoluminescence microscopy. Bakker will use the grant to study proton conduction in structured water.

An Advanced Grant amounts to a total of 2.5 million euros per project and is awarded on the basis of the scientific excellence of both the researcher and the research proposal.

From ‘proteomics’ to ‘foodomics’

Many things that we encounter in daily life have an immensely complex chemical composition. The food we consume is a good example. It is likely to contain many thousands of different types of small and (relatively) large molecules. Human blood is another example. The number of different proteins alone is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000. Scientists understand more and more about the roles of all these different proteins and the more we understand, the more we want to know. This has led to the emergence of the science of proteomics, the goal of which is to qualitatively and quantitatively address the presence – and ideally the function – of all these different proteins. Likewise, some people have started to speak of foodomics, which aims to understand the nutritious, health-promoting or toxic effects of all the different molecules in our food.

Towards the separation of 1 million compounds

The science that is making these developments possible is analytical chemistry. One technique that has especially spurred the unravelling of very complex mixtures is mass spectrometry. This technique has developed dramatically. However, the possibilities of mass spectrometry are limited by the extent to which a mixture can be separated beforehand. Conventional (liquid) chromatographic separations allow slow separations (more than ten hours) of no more than 1,000 compounds. Two-dimensional liquid chromatography, a technique that has been developed at the UvA and in other groups, has the ability to separate up to 10,000 compounds.

In his STAMP project, Schoenmakers explores a different (three-dimensional) approach of liquid chromatography. He will develop a system to separate up to a million compounds from complex mixtures, hence the name ‘Separation Technology for a Million Peaks’. This different spatial approach yields a series of prints ('stamps') of separated compounds, which can then be further analysed with the help of, for example, mass spectrometry. The results of the STAMP project will help advance many fields of science, including (molecular) biology, chemistry, health, food, renewable energy and high-tech materials.

About Peter Schoenmakers

Peter Schoenmakers is professor of Analytical Chemistry & Forensic Science at the UvA's Van 't Hoff Institute of Molecular Sciences (HIMS). He is a world leader in the field of analytical separations and is ranked seventh in the bi-annually compiled ‘Analytical Sciences Power List’ of the magazine Analytical Scientist. In 2015 Schoenmakers was awarded the CASSS Award by the International Society for Separation Science and the Csaba Horváth Memorial Award by the Hungarian Society for Separation Sciences. In 2014 the British Royal Society of Chemistry presented him with the Knox Medal and in 2011 he was awarded the Martin Medal by the Chromatographic Society.

CASA

The STAMP project will be conducted within the Centre for Analytical Sciences Amsterdam (CASA), which brings together the expertise of the UvA and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) in the field of analytical chemistry. CASA researchers from VU will also be involved in the project.

Albert Polman (Credits: Jeroen Oerlemans)

Albert Polman

Albert Polman was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of 2.5 million euro to develop time-resolved cathodoluminescence microscopy. In this new technique, a pulsed electron beam is scanned over the surface of a material while the light that is emitted is collected. This enables the study of optical phenomena at a spatial resolution as small as 10 nm and a time-resolution down to 1 picosecond. The new microscope will enable entirely new studies of quantum optical phenomena at the nanoscale. The instrument will become part of the Amsterdam nanoCenter at AMOLF. It will play a key role in the Solardam research programme on solar energy between the UvA, VU, and AMOLF. In 2011, Polman was also awarded an ERC Advanced Grant for his research on optical metamaterials.

Huib Bakker

Photo: Mark Knight / AMOLF.

Huib Bakker 

Huib Bakker, professor of Ultrafast Spectroscopy of Molecules in the Condensed Phase and director of the FOM Institute AMOLF, will use the grant to study proton conduction in structured water. The transfer of protons through aqueous media plays a crucial role in hydrogen fuel cells and in many metabolic processes in living cells. Often this transfer occurs close to surfaces or within channels with a typical diameter of one nanometer (one billionth of a meter ). The interactions between the water molecules and the surface and/or walls of the nano-channels often imposes a special structure on the hydrogen-bond network of the nearby or embedded water. This hydrogen-bond structure can be very different from that of bulk liquid water or water ice. In this research project the effects of this water structuring on the rate and mobility of the protons will be investigated. The research will be performed with advanced nonlinear optical techniques that allow the measurement of the dynamics of the protons with a time resolution of one hundred femtoseconds (one femtosecond is 10-15 of a second). These studies will provide a fundamental understanding of the molecular mechanisms of aqueous proton transfer in natural and man-made (bio)molecular systems, and can lead to the development of new proton-conducting membranes and nano-channels with applications in fuel cells. The obtained knowledge can also lead to new strategies to control proton mobility, that is  by electrical switching of the properties of the water network at surfaces and in nano-channels, for example  to field-effect proton transistors.

A total of four Amsterdam-based researchers in the exact sciences have received an Advanced Grant. Besides Schoenmakers, Polman and Bakker, the other recipient is Prof. Kjeld Eikema, a physicist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU).

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting