The School of Engineering welcomes a talented new professor

Philip Moll, Laboratory of Quantum Materials – Using quantum materials to create the next generation of electronics

Philip Moll joined EPFL’s Institute of Materials in June 2018 as an assistant tenure track professor. A German native, Moll previously worked at the Max Planck Institute CPfS in Dresden where he studied the exotic properties of quantum materials. More specifically, he developed new micron-scale fabrication methods that enable engineers to make circuits and electronic devices employing these unconventional materials. Moll’s cutting-edge research sits at the crossroads of physics, materials science and chemistry. 

Understanding, building and making it work

Most of the modern technology we use draws on the physical and chemical properties of select materials. These properties are well understood and play a critical role in applications ranging from medicine to electronics. But today scientists are discovering a whole new category of materials – called quantum materials – whose surprising properties can be used to create the next generation of electronic devices.

These exceptional properties include superconductivity and chiral charge carriers, which cannot be explained by classical physics. Moll and his research team aim to uncover the secrets of quantum materials thanks to a revolutionary method they have developed for making ultra-precise quantum microcrystals. These microcrystals can help scientists measure the materials’ exotic properties, and they can be tested in prototypes.

“Our method uses a focused ion beam to evaporate nanometer-sized areas of a crystal by bombarding it with ions. Essentially it is an extremely precise knife, enabling us to carve crystalline microcircuits out of powder-sized particles.” says Moll. “This carefully controlled process lets us characterize quantum materials’ properties and test their potential for use in electronic devices, for example.”

“It’s as if your pen suddenly weighed 100 kg” 

Moll has always had an adventurous spirit and been attracted by unconventional thinking. He obtained a physics degree at ETH Zurich where he observed that “people aren’t afraid to try out new things.”

His research at the time looked at iron-based supraconductors. He then completed a post-doc at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied topological conductors – an area of physics that was the subject of a recent Nobel Prize – and heavy fermion superconducting materials. “I wanted to understand how they work. The electrons in heavy fermions behave as if they were 1,000 times heavier than they actually are. It’s as if your pen suddenly weighed 10 kg, but otherwise it is still a normal pen. It’s unbelievable and exciting at the same time.”

Next station: EPFL

After spending two years at the Max Planck Institute, Moll applied for a position at EPFL. “There was no doubt I wanted to come here. It’s actually the only place I applied to,” says Moll. “I really enjoy the vibrant research culture at EPFL and the multi-disciplinary approach at IMX, uncovering unexpected opportunities to collaborate outside ones core field.” Another strength of EPFL is its shared microfab and microscopy facilities like the CMI and CIME. Moll hopes to collaborate with other research groups at the school and continue performing unprecedented experiments as he seeks out new discoveries. The Laboratory of Quantum Materials, which he now heads, has a large, powerful magnet that he can use to observe how his quantum crystals respond to magnetic fields.