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ERC Starting Grant of 1.4 million euros for the PhotoNow project by Julen Ibañez, researcher of the Materials Physics Centre

Thanks to the project, a new working group will be created to investigate an extraordinary photovoltaic effect at the Materials Physics Center

  • Research

First publication date: 08/09/2020

Julen Ibañez. Photo: Nagore Iraola. UPV/EHU

The European Research Council (ERC) has approved a grant of 1.4 million euros to Julen Ibáñez, a researcher at the CFM, in the ERC Starting Grant 2020 call for proposals. Thanks to this grant, Dr Ibañez will be able to create his own research team, giving work to 3 post-doctoral researchers and 2 thesis students, and will also be able to acquire a computer cluster. It will be a great boost to carry out this research project linked to this unusual photovoltaic effect during the next 5 years.

Julen Ibáñez is "very grateful and happy", specially considering how competitive is the call. According to the European Research Council, more than 3,200 applications have been received, of which only 13% have been subsidized. ERC has 3 panels, LS (Life Science), PE (Physical Science and Engineering) and SH (Social Sciences and Humanities). Dr. Ibáñez has applied to the PE panel and is the only researcher in the Basque Country to have received a grant from this panel.

In the words of the researcher, "I have been given a unique opportunity to create a research group to carry out this research project. For a young researcher like me it is a perfect opportunity to do the things we want to do and stabilize our path, giving a good boost to my career. Although the responsibility is great, I am looking forward to taking up the challenge, being able to bring results and communicating to Europe that its gamble has been worthwhile".

Julen Ibáñez is a postdoctoral researcher with a personal MSCA grant from the European Commission (Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action grant) and a contract with the UPV/EHU related to the Department of Materials Physics of the Faculty of Chemistry of San Sebastian, which develops his research at the CFM. From June 2021, when the new project financed by the ERC will start, it is expected that he will take up a position as a Ikerbasque researcher, joining the CFM indefinitely.

PhotoNow: beyond the standard effect of photovoltaic panels

The project concerns an exceptional photovoltaic effect (i.e. not the standard photovoltaic effect currently used for the operation of the solar panel). It was first measured in the 1960s and consists of a non-linear, light-absorbing effect, which only occurs on some special materials. To suffer the effect, the material has to break the inversion symmetry inside (its basic structure, called the cell unit, has to have a smaller symmetry than usual), which is why it is called "bulk photovoltaic effect (BPVE)", since the effect occurs "inside the material". If this condition happens, the material will absorb light through this effect (in addition to the standard photovoltaic effect). Silicon, the most commonly used element in today's solar panels, for example, does not suffer from this effect due to its inverse symmetry.

The BPVE have certain particularities, such as the fact that the material is capable of transporting without external help the electron that is excited after the absorption of the light, that is to say, the material itself can form and support an intrinsic electric field without the need to apply it externally. This can be a great advantage in comparison to the standards of photovoltaic cells, where the electric field is formed externally through the interfaces called pn-junction (this requires a lot of work technologically and limits cell efficiency).

In the PhotoNow Project, it is intended to impress this area, combining theory and numerical (computational) calculation to be able to predict exactly the absorption properties of the materials suffering from BPVE and thus be able to find interesting materials (with high absorption, efficient, etc.) and propose experiments (because it is easier and faster to do a numerical calculation than to do a real experiment, search for material, synthesize, etc.).

To do this, the researcher proposes taking into account a series of contributions that had not been considered until now based on a new study methodology (the so-called Wannier functions). The aim is, on the one hand, to develop the methodology into a free-software computer code that can be used by researchers from different areas (especially physicists, chemists and engineers) and, on the other hand, for the Ibañez team to find and propose materials of interest themselves.

Julen Ibañez

After graduating in Physics from the UPV/EHU in 2009, the researcher from Guipuzcoa carried out his doctoral thesis, subsidized by a pre-doctoral grant from the Basque Government, at the UPV/EHU and the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC). He decided to continue his research career outside the town and spent a post-doctoral stay in Germany through the Helmholtz grant at the Forschungszentrum Jülich. After almost four years of stay, he came to the CFM in San Sebastian with a grant. He is currently working with the MSCA grant from the European Commission at the CFM.