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New Wallenberg Scholars

Collage of two photos of one man and one woman.
Heiner Linke and Vanya Darakchieva, our new Wallenberg Scholars, along with Anne L'Huillier, Stephanie Reimann, and Kimberly Dick Thelander.

Vanya Darakchieva, Professor of Semiconductor Materials, and Heiner Linke, Professor of Nanophysics, have been named Wallenberg Scholars, a programme funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation that supports excellent basic research, primarily in medicine, technology, and natural sciences. In addition, three current Wallenberg Scholars in our research environment receive grants: Anne L’Huillier, Kimberly Dick Thelander, and Stephanie Reimann.

The five-year grant amounts to SEK 18 million each for researchers in theoretical subjects and up to SEK 20 million each for experimental subjects. As Nobel Prize laureate, Anne L’Huillier receives a grant of SEK 40 million. 

The building blocks of life

Proteins are the building blocks of life. Some proteins play an important role in converting energy into motion – and can therefore also be described as nature's smallest engines. Learning to build using protein molecules has long been a dream of scientists. Heiner Linke recently came one step closer to this goal, and as a Wallenberg Scholar, he wants to go even further.

At first, one might wonder why anyone would even want to try to imitate nature like this.
“Nature is smart. We assume that there is a reason why evolution chose proteins as the main building block of life. We already know that the energy consumption of protein motors is minimal. But we also know that proteins can be used to build extremely complex organisms,” says Heiner Linke, Professor of Nanophysics.
“If we can learn to design and build with proteins, we can dream of complex nanotechnology that would be far more sustainable than current nanotechnology.

This engine uses biological proteins found in nature.

At present, however, all research concerning protein motors is basic research with no direct prospect of practical use. But research is moving forward. At the end of February, Heiner Linke, with his Canadian and Australian colleagues, demonstrated in Nature Communications the world’s first artificial motor that uses proteins to create movement: a microsphere that moved forward autonomously thanks to a layer of proteins, specifically enzymes. Since the enzymes cut another layer of “grass molecules” on a glass surface like a lawnmower, the microsphere spun forward. The necessary energy was released as the enzymes cut the “grass”.
“This engine uses biological proteins found in nature and numerous proteins need to interact.”

The major goal of Heiner Linke and his colleagues is to create a self-propelled protein engine, consisting of a single large molecule, which moves with the help of a biochemical fuel.
“Much like the biological motors myosin, found in muscles, and kinesin, which transports signalling substances in nerve cells,” says Heiner Linke.

As a Wallenberg Scholar, Heiner Linke wants to devote himself to contributing to designing an autonomous protein motor, and to molecular experiments to study and optimise it. He also wants to explore protein design as a platform for environmentally friendly and sustainable nanotechnology.

Scientific article: Motility of an autonomous protein-based artificial motor that operates via a burnt-bridge principle | Nature Communications

Environment-friendly semiconductor materials

Semiconductor materials are central to many key technologies that enable the development of our society, such as communications, computer memory, computing power, and energy production and distribution. As a Wallenberg Scholar, Vanya Darakchieva, Professor of Semiconductor Materials, wants to create new, environmentally friendly semiconductor materials for a sustainable society.

The frontiers of semiconductor physics and technology must be pushed to develop the next generation of quantum technologies and environmentally friendly electronics necessary for transitioning to a sustainable, safe, and resilient society. Cutting-edge solutions for medical and chemical sensors, secure communication and data protection, and new electronic components for an energy-efficient smart grid and electric transport are some examples of what is required.

Vanya Darakchieva and her research team will develop knowledge about unexplored ultra-wide bandgap (UWBG) semiconductors based on metal oxides and metal nitrides. These new materials have great potential to enable the next generation of environmentally friendly power electronic components with better performance that are cheaper and easier to mass produce.

The results will enable next-generation power electronics.

The new semiconductor materials could also serve as host materials to create point defects for robust quantum dots and single photon emitters that can operate at room temperature, which is important for their use in practical applications such as quantum computers and sensors, which currently can only operate at temperatures close to absolute zero.

The research aims to lead to new quantum-quality materials that will be sources of single photons and single spins for quantum information and sensing. The results will also enable next-generation power electronics with enormous potential to radically transform transport, and distribute and converse electricity, thus reducing carbon emissions.