The Public University of Navarre (UPNA) researcher Iñigo Liberal Olleta has been awarded a “Starting Grant” by the European Research Council (ERC) of the European Union, the most important grant that the University has ever obtained. It represents funding of up to 1.5 million Euros over five years for the recipient who can pick the European institution where they wish to carry out their research. Iñigo Liberal has decided that his project, dedicated to research into extreme materials in the fields of nanophotonics and quantum optics, will take place at the UPNA.

The project addresses both fundamental research and technological development aspects. The fundamental research part is focussed on “the interaction of photonic quasi-particles in these materials as quantum emitters and free electrons,” as the researcher explained. In the most immediate technological development part, this will involve aspects such as “experimental development of thermal emitters for thermal camouflage applications and smart windows, plus built-in optical devices for interconnectors, built-in light sources and LiDAR systems,” he adds.

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El investigador Iñigo Liberal (dcha.) y el rector de la Universidad y codirector de su tesis doctoral, Ramón Gonzalo García (izda.)

This UPNA engineering graduate and Telecommunications engineering PhD, researcher at the Institute of Smart Cities, chosen to remain at the Navarre institution because he considers that “it is a relatively new university that is making a significant effort to back research, which makes it an appealing destination to develop new lines. What’s more, the UPNA is my alma mater, and I’m happy to be able to make my own personal contribution to this collective effort.”

“Starting Grant” from the European Union

The funding from the ERC (European Research Council) is considered to be the most prestigious scientific grant in Europe, available to researchers from all over the world who present ground-breaking ideas moving beyond the frontiers of current knowledge. The proposals accepted by the ERC can be in any field of research, and assessment of the proposals to be subsidised is based on the sole criteria of scientific excellence, concerning both the researcher and the project.

In the latest call, 25 Spanish scientists were awarded a “Starting Grant” for projects related to physical and engineering sciences, life sciences and social sciences and humanities. Only 12 Spanish projects were selected within the physical sciences and engineering section and the UPNA researcher’s project is the only one in the field of Systems and Communication Engineering.

In the words of the UPNA’s Vice Chancellor for Research, Francisco Javier Arregui San Martín, having a researcher from this programme at the UPNA represents “a great stimulus” for the institution. “These grants mean that we can attract the most select elite among the world’s talent in the hope that disruptive scientific progress could be made that is bound to benefit both the university and the surrounding area and Navarrese society in general. Developing these initiatives helps to generate new ideas and projects and create an environment that retains talent. Consequently, it gives greater visibility and international prestige to the UPNA as the host for a recipient of the most renown scientific grant in Europe,” he states.

Nanophotonics and quantum optics with extreme materials

Iñigo Liberal’s project focusses, as previously mentioned, on research into extreme materials in the fields of nanophotonics and quantum optics. “We understand extreme materials to be any that have extreme optical properties (such as a refraction index close to zero) or extreme geometry (such as atomic scale thickness)” he explains. As the researcher clarifies, studying the properties of extreme materials “opens the door to observing unconventional behaviour, sometimes even challenging our most basic intuition.” 

“The most fundamental part of the research focuses on studying how quantized optical excitations in these materials (called photonic quasi-particles) interact with quantum emitters and free electrons. The aim is to understand and control these interactions to encourage the development of non-classic light sources with applications in different quantic technology (communications, sensing, simulation and computation).”

Short CV for Iñigo Liberal

Iñigo Liberal Olleta (Pamplona, 1985) is an engineering (2009) and PhD (2013) graduate in Telecommunications Engineering from the Public University of Navarre, whose doctoral dissertation was jointly supervised by professors Ramón Gonzalo García and Iñigo Ederra Urzainqui, thanks to an FPI grant (Research Personnel Training) from the Spanish Government. 

From 2014 to 2017, he was a post-doc researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, United States), in the group led by professor Nader Engheta. He is currently a Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Public University of Navarre, part of the State Programme for Promotion of Talent and its Employability in R+D+i, within the Spanish National Plan for Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation 2013-2016 from the Ministry of the Economy, Industry and Competitiveness.

His research activity is focussed on the fields of theory of antennas, metamaterials, nanophotonics and quantum optics. He has been a visiting researcher at different institutions such as the Technological University of Delft (Netherlands, 2008), Aalto University (Helsinki, Finland, 2011) and the University of Arizona (Tucson, United States, 2012 and 2013).