Today’s world is surrounded by electronic devices which makes everyone’s life easier: cellphones, GPS, computers. These devices all contain two types of components, which either store or deliver information in the electronic circuits. A material that allows “two-in-one” components, able to both store and process information, would significantly reduce the size of electronic devices allowing for a new generation of technologies that are lighter, smaller and more energy-efficient.
Professor Nicola A. Spaldin’s research conceived and developed a new class of two-in-one materials called “multiferroics”, which are at the same time both ferromagnetic and ferroelectric. Multiferroics are rarely found in nature and must be developed in the laboratory. Prof. Spaldin begins by designing the physical and chemical structure of new materials using computer simulations and then uses the results of these simulations to guide real experiments with her team and with outside collaborators.
Since 2010, she has headed the Materials Theory Group at the Swiss Federal Technical University (ETH) in Zürich, where her work focuses on understanding and developing these materials, which as mentioned, are both ferroelectric and magnetic at the same time. While ferroelectricity was first hypothesized by Pierre Curie in the late 1800s, it took another hundred years before Spaldin’s work allowed ferroelectricity to be combined with magnetism.
She works closely with colleagues at companies such as IBM and at large-scale facilities like the Swiss Light Source, as well as universities worldwide to make her materials and measure their properties.
A theoretical chemist by training, Prof. Spaldin’s expertise lies in making detailed quantum-mechanical calculations to understand the properties of complex materials. She is passionate about teaching her subject, in venues ranging from world-leading universities to remote mountain valleys in Nepal. Outside the laboratory, she loves hiking in the mountains thanks to a childhood spent in the beautiful and hilly Lake District in the north of England; it was there that the surrounding geology first sparked her interest in science, which developed through studies in mineralogy and chemistry to her current specialty of materials physics (which are not so far removed from each other as one might think, she says). Today, at 47, she likes to climb and backcountry ski in the Swiss Alps when she has some free time. And that is not all: she is also an active performing orchestral and chamber musician, which allows her to meet people from different backgrounds and walks of life, something that is important to her. Dialogue is another essential fuel, she adds. “Discussions with my research group are always very stimulating and the diversity of our team allows new ideas to emerge.”
From the mountains to materials and music, the multiferroics pioneer is indeed a creative soul – and science is a creative endeavor after all, as she points out.