ERC Starting Grant for three Casimir PIs


Three of our Casimir researchers in Delft have been selected to receive an ERC Starting Grant. The grants (1,5 million euros for a five-year programme) are intended to support scientists who are in the early stages of their career and have already produced excellent supervised work.

Arjen Jacobi 

Our immune system is a formidable barrier for the many microbial pathogens that we encounter every day. A number of these pathogens have therefore evolved to avoid this barrier by invading our cells, and seeking shelter inside a structure called the phagosome. This phagosome is a compartment inside the cell, delimited from the cellular environment by a membrane that physically prevents the pathogen from being recognized and eliminated.

How do we cope with such pathogens that play hide-and-seek? We know that our cells produce so-called ‘effector molecules’ that recognize phagosomes and breach their membranes, so that the pathogens inside can be detected and eliminated. This requires large protein assemblies that dynamically change their shape and thereby physically distort the compartment’s membrane so that it ruptures. Understanding how this all works will provide important insight into a central and ancient mechanism of our immune system.

Arjen Jakobi will use electron microscopy to study this process by making it visible at the nanoscale. “The dilemma is that, at present, we can either make very detailed pictures of protein molecules in an artificially simplified environment, or obtain very blurry pictures of these molecules inside the complex environment of the cell”, said Jakobi. “For a thorough understanding we need both the detail and the complexity.” Jakobi will bridge these two worlds by developing new electron microscopy tools that will allow him to obtain sharp images of such dynamic processes in the full complexity of their natural cellular environment. His insights may help the design of new strategies enhancing our cell’s ability to fight off intracellular pathogens. The new microscopy tools will also aid him and other researchers in obtaining molecular images of many other fundamental cellular processes that are central to health and disease.

Tim Taminiau

Tim Taminiau (1981) is senior scientist at QuTech. His team studies diamond-based qubits and their applications in quantum science and technology.

At the core of quantum information science is the quantum bit or qubit. Whereas a classical bit has a definite value of 0 or 1, a qubit can exist in two states (both 0 and 1) simultaneously. This physical phenomenon is called superposition and allows for substantially more complex computations. Unfortunately, quantum states are extremely fragile, and a key question for scientists is whether quantum states can be protected from errors.

Tim: “The way to overcome this problem is to protect quantum states using quantum error correction (QEC). A promising approach in this respect, is to distribute quantum states and error correction over a quantum network.” Using the ERC starting Grant, Tim aims to realize such quantum networks by using particles of light to connect qubits in diamond through the physical phenomenon of entanglement. “The goal the ERC proposal is to demonstrate that errors in quantum states can be detected reliably over such quantum networks.”

The network approach simplifies scaling-up quantum systems. “Reaching this goal will be a potentially decisive step towards larger quantum networks and distributed quantum computations. We will enter a new territory in which quantum states can be made more stable, by making networks larger and larger,” said Tim.

Menno Veldhorst
The promise of quantum computation stems from the remarkable behavior of the quantum world, where quantum states can be in superposition and entangled with each other. The states are also extremely fragile and the challenge is to gain control over them. In this project, Menno Veldhorst (senior scientist at QuTech and roadmap leader QuTech Academy) aims to combine two promising approaches to find out whether their individual limitations can be overcome, to build a universal quantum computer with inherent protection against noise.

Quantum information can be encoded on several types of qubits. Encoding on the spin states of an electron provides a universal set for operations, but interactions between spins are short-ranged, and scaling qubits to large numbers is thus challenging. Encoding on Majorana qubits could make quantum information robust against noise, but with this approach not all desired operations can be executed. Menno: “The grand goal of this project is therefore to coherently transfer quantum information between spin and Majorana qubits. The theoretical idea has been around for a while, but only very recently a suitable material system for the implementation has emerged: strained germanium.”

“This research is presently at a fundamental stage and is thereby bound to produce exciting results where new physics may arise,” said Menno. Nonetheless, the fabrication itself is compatible with standard semiconductor manufacturing. “Our long-term dream is to create a powerful platform where complex and emerging systems can be created, simulated, and computed to advance our general understanding of physics.”

Visit the ERC website for more information about the ERC grants and their winners.