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Piotr Piotrowiak, Researcher in Ultrafast Energy Conversion Processes, Awarded Donald H. Jacobs Chair

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Imagine the speed an instrument would need to see a process happen within one second. Then imagine the speed needed for equipment to capture such a process in one-tenth of a trillionth of a second.

That time resolution, using synchronized laser pulses, is achieved by an ultrafast microscope created through the research of Dr. Piotr Piotrowiak, a physical chemist and professor in the Department of Chemistry at Rutgers-Newark. On Dec. 14, the Rutgers Board of Governors awarded Piotrowiak the Donald H. Jacobs Chair in Applied Physics, citing him as "an internationally recognized leader in the field of femtosecond imaging." (A femtosecond is one thousandth of a trillionth of a second.)

The three-year award, named for a Rutgers alumnus and donor, recognizes senior faculty who have made distinguished accomplishments in the branch of physics that forms the basis for modern technology. "I moved from mainstream chemistry to laser optics and instrument development...driven by an interest in solar energy conversion," Piotrowiak says. The Board noted that his work "is at the vanguard of modern physical and chemical measurement, [and] has had a significant impact on our understanding of dynamic processes in nanostructured materials."

Piotrowiak's research explores how light turns into usable forms of energy, such as electricity or chemical energy. It looks at the molecular level at house to harness solar energy for power generation and how to drive chemical reactions for the direct production of fuels or feedstock for polymers and plastics.

The ultrafast microscope, designed and constructed in Piotrowiak's laboratory with the assistance of postdoctoral associate Dr. Lars Gundlach (now an assistant professor at the University of Delaware) and Dr. Zhihao Yu, records "femto-movies" of molecules and nanomaterials undergoing energy conversion processes. Each "movie frame" acquired by the ultrafast microscope lasts 100 femtoseconds, or one-tenth of a trillionth of a second.

The speed made possible through this research is unique, representing the fastest an optical process can be studied in a microscope. "You want to be able to resolve the dynamics of these processes both in time and space," he says. "This is exactly what our instrument is capable of." He describes the research as a combination of materials physics, chemistry and nonlinear optics.

To build new collaborations based on his work at Rutgers, Piotrowiak spent February at the Tokyo Institute of Technology on a fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

In nominating him for the award, Dr. Frank Jordan, chairman of the chemistry department, cited Piotrowiak's "deep and thorough understanding of molecular physics" and his achievement in building "the most advanced ultrafast spectroscopy laboratory in the entire Rutgers system, and for that matter in the entire state." Many local, national and international collaborations have grown from that work, Jordan said in his nomination. He called Piotrowiak "a major force in promoting the growth of our shared research infrastructure."

For his part, Piotrowiak was surprised and honored to be named the Jacobs chair. "It is a tremendous incentive and stimulation to continue working in this direction," he says. The award also gives him "a wonderful opportunity to explore venues that otherwise would be difficult to try."

At the top of his list of research subjects the award may enable him to pursue is plasmonics, the study of interactions between the molecules and semiconductors with metals. Piotrowiak calls it "a very exciting new field," still in early exploration. "One can shape and direct light by allowing it to interact with nanostructural metals," he explains. "Our technique is ideally suited to study some of those interaction 'in real time.'" He plans to collaborate with junior faculty members at Rutgers who are building research programs in plasmonics.

In this way, the appointment let shim investigate concepts that might be considered too high-risk to support. "It is certainly an encouragement to work harder and to keep testing new territories instead of always following the predictable path. Sometimes, the high risk ideas pay off," Piotrowiak says.