Michael Zuerch: Shining a light on solid matter energy dynamics

Michael Zuerch

My lab currently hosts chemistry students and two physics postdocs. I, myself, am a trained physicist, but now am mostly thinking about the chemistry applications of my research.

Michael Zuerch

By Denise Klarquist

Comparing the complex materials science research that is the focus of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Michael Zuerch’s work to a roller coaster ride may seem like an odd analogy. Yet, it is a remarkably effective means to explain how he is using light to understand and manipulate energy states in solid matter, which could ultimately lead to new mechanisms for solar energy conversion, information storage or even computation at the speed of light.

“It revolves around understanding the electron dynamics in a solid material once you photoexcite it,” Zuerch explains. “Think of the electrons taking a ride in a roller coaster. When we shine in a light pulse, we kind of kick the electron up a hill, and then it comes back to the equilibrium state. However, when the electrons return to this relaxed state, they often change along with the atoms around them. What we want to know is how this happens.”

Zuerch is one of the newest faculty members to join the Department of Chemistry. He and his multi-disciplinary research team are using ultrafast X-ray spectroscopy and nanoimaging to investigate electron dynamics, the roller coaster journey so to speak, in novel quantum materials and heterostructures. He uses sophisticated instrumentation to produce femtosecond laser pulses and attosecond X-ray pulses for high-resolution imaging of these ultrafast phenomena. Through this research, Zuerch seeks to potentially manipulate and stop the process at an intermediate state, hoping to answer vital questions in materials science and physical chemistry.

Born in a remote region of East Germany, just prior to the country’s reunification, Zuerch attributes his open-mindedness and curiosity to his upbringing during this era. “My family strongly encouraged me to take advantage of the new opportunities to study and explore in the reunified and opened country; opportunities my parents did not have,” he explained.

As a teenager, Zuerch initially hoped to study informatics and computer science. Constantly having to fix and rebuild the unstable computers he was using, he realized one of the limitations to computer speed had to do with the technology of semiconductors; it was the materials that limited upscaling. As his studies progressed, he noted the same limitations could also apply to energy storage and energy transfer.

Michael Zuerch
Michael Zuerch in a high school computer class. (Photo courtesy Michael Zuerch.)

An engaging high school teacher who was also an active research physicist opened his eyes to the practical aspects of experimental physics, influencing his decision to enroll at Friedrich Schiller University Jena where he obtained his diploma and subsequent Ph.D. in physics in 2014. Both the university and the city, home to companies like Carl Zeiss, are renowned for innovation in optics and lasers.

“Ultimately, going into physics was a very good decision; it combines a lot of those aspects I was originally interested in. My work still involves programming, and the one-of-a-kind optical and laser instrumentation we use, we need to build ourselves. A lot of those things relate to my past.”  

In 2015, Zuerch chose the College of Chemistry at Berkeley for his postdoc. While it may seem unusual for a trained physicist to land in the Department of Chemistry, Zuerch explained that given his expertise in non-linear optics and his interests, it was the best place he could find himself. “As a Ph.D. student, I became an expert in making X-ray laser light out of optical laser light, using X-ray flashes to take images of materials. But it was static; you need to watch the matter in motion to understand it. And so that’s what attracted me to Stephen Leone and Daniel Neumark’s work at Berkeley who became my postdoc advisors and are now my colleagues.”

Non-linear optics machinery
Non-linear optics machinery. (Photo: courtesy Michael Zuerch.)

The question Zuerch sought to answer was how to add the time dimension to these spatial observations. “Berkeley is world-leading in that area, so it was really the best possible place for me to come and explore.”

In the Department of Chemistry, Zuerch found a focus on the applications for his work. “In the chemistry department, there are people asking questions like how can we use that for solar energy conversion? How can we use that to make solar fuels? Even though I am trained as a physicist, that’s much closer to where I want to be.”

When an offer came to return to the College of Chemistry as an assistant professor, he naturally jumped on the opportunity, joining the faculty in 2019.

This spring semester, Zuerch has been teaching a physical chemistry lab, which is one of the courses that has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. Like many instructors, he has faced the challenge of bringing the lab virtually to students, relying heavily on the ingenuity of his GSIs to create video based experiments.

Zuerch sees the diversity of expertise represented in the college as an enormous benefit. “My lab currently hosts chemistry students and two physics postdocs. I, myself, am a trained physicist, but now am mostly thinking about the chemistry applications of my research. It’s really a melting pot of clever people with very different backgrounds coming together to resolve some big challenges. And that is the spirit of Berkeley I appreciate so much and another reason why I wanted to come back to this place. It’s truly unique.”

Moreover, Zuerch appreciates the collaborative and open environment that is a hallmark of the college. “People care about your success and your progress. It’s extraordinary how researchers pool their ideas, creating joint proposals to attract funding which ultimately enables you to do the research. There is a lot of bouncing of ideas among colleagues which is fantastic.”

Today, Zuerch finds himself at the interface between material science, physics, and chemistry, seeking to unlock the means toward developing novel material processes that may enable better solar energy harvesting or efficient and faster computation.

Members of the Zuerch lab during COVID
Members of the Zuerch lab during COVID. (Photo Michael Barnes)

Recently, Zuerch and his interdisciplinary team received a generous grant to fund the California Interfacial Science Initiative (CISI). The program is one of 15 research projects funded by the University of California’s 2021 Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI) competition to support research and discoveries in fields important to UC and the people, environment, and economy of California.

The CISI project leverages the combined theoretical and experimental physical chemistry expertise of members from six UC campuses. With Zuerch at the helm, the collaborative effort seeks to address challenges arising from climate change and mitigate human impacts on the environment through the advancement of interfacial chemistry and interfacial molecular structure. Investigations in this area could lead to breakthroughs in clean water production, carbon dioxide capture, removal of plastics from water, clean energy production, and energy storage in next-generation solid-state batteries.

“As an advocate for public education, the fact that my first large grant is coming from the State and a public institution is very exciting,” said Zuerch.

As to the future, Zuerch, like the vast majority of the UC Berkeley community, is looking forward to the day when he can return to campus and his lab. “Being in the lab with the students I work with is awesome. It’s exciting to interact with these bright people and learn from them. And I hope they learn a few things from me.”

In terms of his field, he sees opportunities to harness the vast dispersed expertise of the global research community to study the abundance of new materials that are being synthesized daily.   In fact, the pool of materials is much larger than the capacity to study them.

“What I hope for the future would be an international collaborative framework, a database that brings all the small innovations together in a bigger picture. We have the tools and materials available, but we haven’t quite yet found which opportunities are most promising. Finding those and encouraging researchers to contribute to this effort would be enormously valuable to society.”