The ERC-Synergy project TOMATTO kicks off

The European Research Council (ERC) decided in 2018 to reintroduce a major grant programme –Synergy- to promote the synergy of research groups working in complementary fields. Its aim is to support close collaboration between groups leading to a fruitful cross-fertilization of disciplines capable of producing innovative results on problems of high scientific relevance. The ERC-Synergy project TOMATTO is born to be a multidisciplinary effort to explore the processes that occur in the interaction between light and organic matter (molecular organic optoelectronics) on an inconceivably small time scale: the attosecond, which is a unit of time equivalent to one trillionth of a second (10-18 s).

Why is the attosecond time scale relevant? The transfer of photons and electric charge induced by light in organic matter are fundamental processes in nature that form one of the most relevant bases of the functioning of our planet. Take for example photosynthesis, an important process for living organisms because it is the first source of oxygen in the atmosphere. Without photosynthesis, the carbon cycle could not occur, life requiring oxygen would not exist and plants would die. Green plants and trees use photosynthesis to make food from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water in the atmosphere: it is their main source of energy.

For years scientists have been investigating how to produce synthetic materials of an organic or hybrid nature capable of reproducing photosynthesis and other similar electronic transfer processes that could open the way to new devices and applications. However, until now, the development of these technologies has been limited because the first stages of these processes occur on an immensely short time scale of attoseconds, a time dimension that except for very small molecules has remained hidden until now. The aim of this project is precisely to study those unknown initial steps and to contribute to the development of a new technological paradigm. The development of the project will provide clear films of the transfer of electrons and charges induced by light of the visible and ultraviolet spectrum with unprecedented temporal resolution in order to design molecular materials with improved optoelectronic properties (with more efficient, faster and longer range electron and charge transfer). To this end the experimental tools of nanoscience will be extended to this time scale, far beyond the state of the art, and will be complemented, in a synergic way, with the most advanced methods of organic synthesis and computational modelling. This ambitious process cannot be carried out by a single research group as an extended and deep knowledge of all its aspects is required (organic synthesis, design of optoelectronic materials, advanced laser developments, science of the attosecond, non-standard computer modelling, advanced quantum physics, etc.). The TOMATTO consortium covers all of them: Prof Mauro Nisoli is a laser physicist, pioneer in the generation and application of ultra-short pulses; Prof Nazario Martín is an organic chemist, recognized expert in the synthesis of new organic materials involving photo-induced processes; and Prof Fernando Martín, principal investigator and coordinator of the consortium, is a theoretical chemist, developer of the necessary new computational methods. All of them had previously seen their work recognized by the ERC itself with the awards of an Advanced Grant to each.