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Porträtt på Nicolò Maccaferri.
Published: 2024-01-24 Updated: 2024-01-26, 11:18

Physics meets magic as Nicolò Maccaferri tames the light

PROFILE Nicolò Maccaferri is far from a dull scientist. The way he masters light and its properties is almost magical. Although his own field is physics, he is convinced that collaboration across research disciplines is the key to significant breakthroughs.

Image: Patrik Lundin, Wallenbergstiftelserna
Porträtt på Nicolò Maccaferri.

With his dark hair slightly disheveled and a lively look behind round glasses – not unlike Harry Potter – Nicolò Maccaferri greets me with great enthusiasm in a room at the Department of Physics. The past year has been incredibly busy for him. He received two significant grants, his family grew, and he traveled extensively. He admits struggling to unwind during the holiday season, much to his wife's dismay. But now, he's excited about the new year.

“I’m not intimidated by the workload. I really love the ideas behind our projects and am ready to put them into action,” he says.

Pushes the boundaries

In 2023, Nicolò Maccaferri was honored both with a Wallenberg Academy Fellowship and the ERC Starting Grant – two of the most prestigious awards for fundamental research. This recognition brings with it substantial research funding and the opportunity to elevate his work in photonics, the science of light, to the next level.

The term 'magic' easily comes to mind when Nicolò Maccaferri discusses his projects, which push the boundaries of what’s possible in the interaction between light and matter. Can materials be created that are invisible? That convert light to energy? That can store infinite amounts of data?

As a child in a small Italian village, Nicolò Maccaferri didn't dream of becoming a scientist. He was drawn to humanities, especially philosophy. The thoughts of great philosophers on how the world works captivated him.

Speaks different languages

“I used to think of scientists as heartless people in a lab, playing with potions without any connection to society, at least directly. Then I realized that physicists, and scientists at large, might be like philosophers, just using a different language.”

Despite not excelling in physics at school, Nicolò Maccaferri chose to pursue the subject, spurred on by a teacher who believed in his analytical mindset. He moved abroad, learned English, climbed the career ladder, met his future wife in Spain, and – fast forward a few years – settled down in Umeå.

Here I have full support and no pressure. This is really the right place for me.

The choice of location is partly due to his wife's love for the cold and the snow. But it’s also because Nicolò Maccaferri enjoys challenges and had a great gut feeling when he first visited Umeå University.

“Umeå was the extreme choice, and I had other offers. But I felt that here I could develop my full potential. Here I have full support and no pressure. This is really the right place for me,” he says.

Time to deliver

Now, Nicolò Maccaferri has his own lab, resources to build up his research, and has proven to himself and others the high potential of his work – a dream come true. Now, it's time to deliver.

Maccaferri's research largely involves using extremely short light pulses to trigger physical and chemical processes in materials in a way that wasn’t possible before. The project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) aims to make non-magnetic materials magnetic and to use the magnetic properties of materials in new ways for information storage. In his Wallenberg project, on the other hand, his dream is to create the foundations to develop computers that do not need electricity but are instead operated by light. The goal is to develop components that could build the light-operated computers of the future. These have potential to be much faster and more energy-efficient than the current ones.

A million times older than the universe

The key here is the use of ultrafast light pulses, measured in femtoseconds (10 to the power of -15 seconds), opening up a new dimension. Nicolò Maccaferri tries to explain:

“For an electron inside our computers, we are a million times older than the universe is to us. That's how brief a femtosecond is in comparison to a second in our life. If we can manipulate matter on that timescale, we can also change how we, for example, store and process data in our computers. We can use artificial intelligence and quantum technology to explore time as a new dimension and this will open new perspectives on how machines perceive time and perhaps a new technological bridge between our physical brain and what we call consciousness.”

Again, it sounds more like science fiction than a project in a lab in the basement of Umeå University. But Nicolò Maccaferri suggests that the line between science, philosophy, and magic is not always as clear as one might think.

“If you think about it, much of what was once considered magic is now scientifically proven.”

Wants to use plants in computers

Nicolò Maccaferri believes in erasing boundaries. He already collaborates with various researchers and research groups and values the excellent opportunities for interdisciplinary projects at Umeå University. One idea he has is to work with plant scientists to see how plants, instead of metals and semiconductors, could be used as materials in computers, making them significantly more environmentally friendly.

“My expertise lies in trapping light and doing what I want with it. This expertise can then be used in different fields, like medicine or plant research, just as we can learn from others. If I understand how plants interact with light, maybe we can also make materials that behave like plants. Then we can make buildings out of materials that convert light into energy, and carbon-based molecules to oxygen. Imagine doing this on Mars. You can build cities and colonize new places in the galaxy with this technology… But that's a project for later,” says Nicolò Maccaferri.