Electrons, the particles that zip around the nucleus of an atom, are unimaginably small and unimaginably fast. Take a photo of one, and you could unlock some of the secrets of the universe. Go one better, and manipulate one with the briefest flash of light, and you can potentially revolutionise electronics and information technology.
© Fotolia, 2012
That's the challenge being taken on by ADAM - Advancing Attosecond Metrology - which, through the European Union (EU)'s Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) programme, supported the postdoctoral research of Eleftherios Goulielmakis at the Institute for Quantum Optics, part of the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Germany. Goulielmakis is currently a research group leader of the Institute's Attoelectronics group.
"It's the same as trying to take a picture of a car in a race," he explains. "To capture a moment you don't just need a good camera, but you need a camera fast enough to make sure that the picture is not blurred. We are developing what we call attosecond laser pulses, which act as ultra-fast cameras that allow us to capture this motion."
But the most exciting aspect of ADAM is what follows actually manipulating the motion of those electrons. "We can send a weak light burst to take a snapshot, but if we make a stronger pulse that can exert very precise forces on these electrons, it can control their motion," says Goulielmakis. "If you think from the point of view of electronics, which is all about transferring electrons from a computer chip, here we are actually moving electrons from one corner of a single atom to another corner. As you can imagine, one day we will be able to define and perform very, very miniscule actions essential to computer science."
The research is considered critical toward the future development of electron-based information technologies - in particular, advancing these technologies so that they can reach their ultimate speed.
A native of Greece, Goulielmakis is a two-time recipient of a Marie Curie fellowship. "I consider myself particularly privileged to have been in contact with the Marie Curie funding," says the 37-year-old, who received his first fellowship when he moved to Munich as a post-doc in 2005.
"Marie Curie has been an essential benefit for me," he says, as he counts up the various unique elements of the funding. "First of all, you are independent. That means you can select where you want to go without the restriction you would have if, for example, your host institution doesn't have funding. Mobility is a great advantage."
This independence from host institutions gives Marie Curie fellows more than simple financial freedom – it also gives them a kind of intellectual freedom. Because of the funding, Goulielmakis could attend conferences and interact with scientists outside his immediate area of research. "It allows you to go to conferences without thinking, 'How can I justify this with the budget that my boss has set aside?'
"I remember something along those lines when I went to a conference for Marie Curie fellows in Belgrade. In the beginning, you think, 'What is this going to give me?' but then you realise it's a unique opportunity to see how other fields are evolving and to get feedback."
But the Marie Curie funding also offers other, more basic, essentials. "The salary is very respectable, regardless of which country you go to," he notes. "That is also very important, because it coincides with a time just after the PhD when many are starting a family."
The programme works in conjunction with other EU funding schemes, such as the re-integration grant, which offers scientists the chance to continue their work after the two years of the Marie Curie fellowship elapsed.
"After several years of research, the re-integration grant actually followed up from the Marie Curie grant, and helped me make sure that I could really harness the efforts of several years," says Goulielmakis. "It is all part of the European community strategy to help a scientist on his first post-PhD steps towards being part of a big project."