Just a few months ago, Silvan Schmid was appointed to TU Wien as a professor at the Institute of Sensor and Actuator Systems, and is already reporting great success: he was awarded the ERC Starting Grant, a lucrative and prestigious award for research issued by the European Research Council. This will now enable him to consolidate and further develop his new research group in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at TU Wien and to pursue research in nanoplasmomechanics - a field where there has previously been little research of this type.
Microscopically small antennae are irradiated with light, resulting in the interaction between three very different types of vibration: the mechanical vibration of the antennae, which move like minute guitar strings, the collective vibrations of electrons in the material known as plasmons, and the electromagnetic vibration of the light. The interaction of these three types of vibration should result in the ability to develop highly sensitive sensors, which could be used, for example, to detect and investigate proteins.
Silvan Schmid has long been focusing on vibrating nanostructures: at the Technical University of Denmark, he was researching the behaviour of micromechanical resonators. "The vibrations of these structures depend extremely heavily on mass," explains Schmid. "If the mass increases by just a tiny fraction, perhaps as a result of the accumulation of an additional particle, the vibration behaviour changes significantly."
For this reason, these nanoresonators are promising for the future development of new sensor technologies. Nevertheless, the big problem here is stimulating and measuring these vibrations efficiently. "Our latest idea is to look at what are known as plasmons, the collective vibration stimuli of the electrons," explains Schmid.
These plasmons can bridge the gap between the mechanical vibration and the electro mechanical vibration of the light wave. This means we can efficiently stimulate the vibrations of nanoantennae with a size of around 50 x 500 nanometres. Using lasers, we can then also determine the exact position of the nanoantennae, and thus measure their vibration frequency.
Telecommunication and nanosensors
To understand exactly how plasmons, mechanical vibrations and light interact continues to require more fundamental research: "There are still some effects that are not yet fully understood," says Silvan Schmid. However, exciting potential applications are already in view: with the nanoplasmo mechanical structures, light and low frequency electrical signals can be transformed from one form to the other - this is important in telecommunications, yet can only currently be achieved with relatively large components. By using plasmons, the same thing would be possible in a microscopically thin layer.
One of Silvan Schmid's major objectives is to use the extraordinary sensitivity of nanoantennae to construct innovative mass sensors. This could be used to measure the mass of particles and even detect individual proteins. "We just want to determine the mass of proteins gently, without having to electrically charge the particle," says Silvan Schmid. We can only currently achieve the same thing with elaborate mass spectrometry procedures, which are very complex, and which often initially require the destruction of proteins.
Switzerland, Denmark, Austria
Silvan Schmid is originally from Switzerland, he studied engineering at ETH Zurich and specialised in nanotechnology. As part of his dissertation (also at ETH Zurich), he began to focus on micro resonators and sensors. After being awarded his doctorate in 2009, he moved to the Technical University of Denmark, in Kongens Lynby, near Copenhagen, where he held the position of associate professor, before being appointed as a full professor at TU Wien in March 2016.
In June 2016, Schmid moved into his new office at TU Wien, where he is now developing the required experimental infrastructure. He settled into Vienna very quickly: "I love living in a big city where there are so many professional and leisure opportunities," reflects Silvan Schmid. He is also very positive about his new working environment at TU Wien: "The institute's orientation is a perfect fit for me and there are also research projects at other institutes that could make for interesting cooperations."
Starting at TU Wien has been made all the sweeter thanks to the additional financial support provided by the ERC grant: the ERC Starting Grant is endowed with 1.5 million euros - one of the most lucrative and prestigious grants in the European research sector.