Looking into the inside of materials

Kiel Physics Department receives around €2.5 million in BMBF funding to set up new methods at the DESY X-ray sources



© Bridget Murphy

Kiel’s physicists want to use new methods at research facilities like the X-ray lightsource PETRA III at DESY to examine materials and processes at the nano level.

It is the small details that determine a material’s properties: the arrangement and behaviour of atoms define the features of materials. Decisive processes at the nanoscale take place at their surfaces in particular. To understand these processes, scientists need investigative methods which enable them to delve into atomic dimensions. Intensive X-ray light, for example, like that which is produced in the particle accelerators at the DESY research centre, or at the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, the European XFEL. Physicists from Kiel University (CAU) have long been researching ways to develop these methods further. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has now approved four of their collaborative projects at once. They could create important foundations for customised quantum materials, new electrodes in fuel cells, controlled release of medicines or the understanding of chemical reactions. As from 1 July 2019, the projects will receive a total of about €2.5 million for three years, as the BMBF has now announced.

The approved projects from the Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics are based in the Ruprecht Haensel Laboratory on the grounds of the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg. In the lab, which is jointly run by the CAU and DESY, scientists are developing new instruments and experimental methods with especially intensive X-ray beams and using them for their research. They will then make these experimental possibilities available to other research groups. The lab is named after one of the most important pioneers in research with synchrotron radiation, Ruprecht Haensel, who was the Rector of Kiel University from 1996 to 2000.

“These four grants are the result of years of successful research cooperation. They not only benefit Kiel's Nano, Surface and Interface Science, but also North Germany as a research location,” said CAU President Professor Lutz Kipp to congratulate his colleagues. “Only by working closely together in projects like these can we make progress in developing materials research, microelectronics and the life sciences.”

Here is an overview of the four collaborative projects:

Illustration Atomebene
© Olaf Magnussen

How the arrangement of atoms on a surface changes tells scientists a lot about the processes taking place there, like on electrodes in a fuel cell.

HESEC: new methods for energy research

As part of the changeover to sustainable energy generation, more and more research is being conducted into electrochemical energy conversion processes. These take place, for example, in electrodes in fuel cells, whereby the energy stored in hydrogen gas is directly converted into electric energy. Olaf Magnussen, Professor of Solid State Physics at the CAU, and his research team now want to use high-energy X-ray beams to find out what happens here at the interface between solid and liquid. To do so, they developed special scattering methods which are to be used in the new Ada Yonath experimental hall at DESY’s PETRA III synchrotron. “With these methods, we are able to observe, atom by atom, how the surface of the electrodes changes during such chemical reactions,” explained Magnussen. “This allows us to better understand and optimise catalysts or fuel cells.” Their findings could be the basis for new, longer lasting electrode materials and procedures for directly producing hydrogen and fuels from excess wind power.

  • Title: High-energy surface X-ray scattering for electrocatalysis and energy science (HESEC)
  • Objective: To make atomic structural changes to electrodes for fuel cells and electrolytic hydrogen production visible using high-energy X-ray beams.
  • Project leader: Prof. Dr. Olaf Magnussen, CAU
  • Project partner: DESY
  • Funding amount: EUR 509,000


research facility
© Caroline Lemke

The researchers can analyse the interfaces between liquids and gases at atomic level using a high-performance laser

LISA Dynamics: what happens at cell membranes

Dr. Bridget Murphy from the Interface Physics Group is researching the special interfaces between liquids and gases. Being able to control how this works is important for applications in molecular electronics, for example. In the past, Murphy worked at the X-ray lightsource PETRA III at DESY together with Magnussen, to develop an experiment using high-intensity X-ray beams (diffractometer LISA), to investigate the movement of atoms. Here, they are stimulated with a high-performance laser and their movements are traced by the scattering of ultrashort X-ray pulses. “Now we can develop the experiment even further and investigate the interfaces of liquids for the first time across all time scales,” explained the project leader, “so from seconds to femtoseconds, a quadrillionth of a second.” As these interfaces often occur in the human body, these new findings could also make an important contribution to the life sciences, for example, to better understand the function of cell membranes or the controlled release of medicines. 

  • Title: Experiment to investigate fast and ultrafast dynamics at liquid interfaces using optical pump-X-ray-sample techniques.
  • Objective: To investigate the interfaces between liquids and gases at short time scales using X-ray scattering experiments.
  • Project leader: Dr. habil. Bridget Murphy
  • Project partner: DESY
  • Funding amount: EUR 600,000
© AG Rossnagel

The project should enable quantum materials to be produced specifically down to the last atom, and be optimised using the research results from the unique DESY experiments. This should allow better understanding of new properties, such as transporting current without losses.

QM-MBE-SXPES: developing novel quantum materials

Together with colleagues from the University of Würzburg and DESY, Kai Rossnagel, Professor of Solid State Research with Synchrotron Radiation at the CAU and lead scientist at DESY, wants to produce novel materials with unique electronic properties from complex thin layers. “The samples we want to examine at DESY are very sensitive and some consist solely of a single atomic layer, which would be badly contaminated during transport from Kiel,” explained Rossnagel. In this new project, high-quality samples should be produced in close proximity to the DESY research facilities. The electronic, magnetic and optical properties of the materials can be determined using the unique examination methods available there, like photoelectron spectroscopy. The results should be used to specifically optimise the production of materials on site. These customised quantum materials could open up completely new technological possibilities, like transporting electric current without any losses.

  • Title: Novel Integral 8D Photoelectron Spin and Momentum Microscopy for Complete Dynamics Analysis in Quantum Matter at XFEL.
  • Objective: To film ultrafast changes to material properties and the course of chemical reactions as completely as possible via a photoelectronic signal.
  • Project leader: Prof. Dr. Kai Rossnagel
  • Project partners: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, University of Duisburg-Essen, European XFEL
  • Funding amount: EUR 695,000
© AG Rossnagel

At the European XFEL, the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, the research team from Kiel wants to develop an ultrafast camera to be able to film chemical reactions “live”.

XFEL-k-Spin-multi-D: filming electron movements “live”

In a second funded project, Rossnagel is building his own experiment at the world’s most powerful X-ray laser, the European XFEL (X-ray-free-electron laser), together with colleagues from the Universities in Mainz and Duisburg-Essen, as well as an international consortium with over 40 members. Ultrashort flashes of light in the X-ray range - 27,000 per second - will be produced in the research facility in Schenefeld in Schleswig-Holstein. Rossnagel wants to use an ultrafast camera to film and analyse the motion of electrons in materials and during chemical reactions. “This would enable us to record all the data, for the first time, that are in the photoelectron’s signal - this has never been possible before. That would give us a comprehensive picture of the properties of the materials being examined,” said Rossnagel. Phase transitions like melting or evaporation, and chemical reactions at atomic level could be observed “live” with a temporal resolution in the femtosecond range, which is equivalent to a frame rate of almost a thousand trillion (or quadrillion) images per second.

  • Title: Setup for molecular beam epitaxy of complex quantum materials for soft X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy at beamline P04 of PETRA III.
  • Objective: To produce customised quantum materials and optimise them using high-brilliance X-rays.
  • Project leader: Prof. Dr. Kai Rossnagel
  • Project partners: University of Würzburg, DESY
  • Funding amount: EUR 655,000

Details, which are only a millionth of a millimetre in size: this is what the priority research area "Kiel Nano, Surface and Interface Science – KiNSIS" at Kiel University has been working on. In the nano-cosmos, different laws prevail than in the macroscopic world - those of quantum physics. Through intensive, interdisciplinary cooperation between physics, chemistry, engineering and life sciences, the priority research area aims to understand the systems in this dimension and to implement the findings in an application-oriented manner. Molecular machines, innovative sensors, bionic materials, quantum computers, advanced therapies and much more could be the result. More information at www.kinsis.uni-kiel.de


Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Olaf Magnussen
Kiel University (CAU)
Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics
Interface Physics
+49 431 880-5579


Dr. habil. rer. nat. Bridget Murphy
Kiel University (CAU)
Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics
Interface Physics

+49 431 880-5558




Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Kai Rossnagel
Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Institut für Experimentelle und Angewandte Physik
Festkörperforschung mit Synchrotronstrahlung
+49 431 880-3876


(Kopie 9)

Julia Siekmann
Science Communication Officer, Research area Kiel Nano Surface and Interface Sciences