Swapan Chattopadhyay and Omar Chmaissem

 Swapan Chattopadhyay and Omar Chmaissem

Learn from scientists at the top of their game

Students who are looking to study under leading-edge scientists have plenty of options at NIU, including a pair of physicists whose research might accurately be described as “super cool.”

Swapan Chattopadhyay is leading efforts to develop “cool electron beams,” while Omar Chmaissem explores areas of magnetism and superconductivity—a property of zero electrical resistance found in some materials at very low absolute temperatures.

In both cases, the work holds immense potential for creating new 21st century technology.

Chattopadhyay and Chmaissem gave the NIU Department of Physics a clean sweep of this year’s Presidential Research Professorships, the university’s annual top recognition for outstanding research, scholarship or artistry.

“At NIU, we’re very proud of the fact that students learn from professors who are also leading researchers,” said Jerry Blazey, vice president of Research and Innovation Partnerships. “Swapan Chattopadhyay and Omar Chmaissem exemplify these qualities, creating new knowledge that they in turn impart to NIU students, who become the next generation of scientists.”

Accelerator science and technology

A top physicist with an international reputation for innovation and excellence in the field of accelerator science and technology, Chattopadhyay accepted a joint appointment two years ago to NIU and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Already, as director of NIU’s very first cluster of research excellence in accelerator science, and working with NIU colleagues Philippe Piot, Bela Erdelyi, Mike Syphers and Venumadhav Korampally, Chattopadhyay has helped secure about $1.8 million in multi-year grants for research funding from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy. The funding bolsters the efforts of both faculty and students who are working in beam physics and development of next generation particle accelerators.

The work is important to society as well. Particle accelerators are used in the medical field for therapy and diagnostics and in development of “designer materials” used in products such as cell phones and computers. Research scientists use these devices to explore the universe at the sub-atomic level.

Particle accelerators produce beams of charged particles, such as electrons and protons. The beams are extremely hot, however, comparable to the surface of the sun; and the hotter the particles, the more difficult they are to focus or control. Chattopadhyay is leading efforts to develop highly focused or “cool” beams that could result in more compact and capable instruments of science and extend the technology to everyday devices.

The work continues to strengthen NIU’s ties to Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, while initiating connections with other top research institutions, such as CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and the Cambridge Graphene Center at the University of Cambridge, UK.

“Professor Chattopadhyay has added tremendous energy to NIU’s accelerator science program,” says Professor Laurence Lurio, physics chair. “He brought a wealth of leading edge knowledge, international contacts and leadership skills when he came to NIU.”

Born and educated in Darjeeling and Calcutta, India, Chattopadhyay served as director of the Cockcroft Institute in England prior to coming to NIU. Over the course of his career, he has made significant contributions to the development of accelerators worldwide for particle physics, nuclear physics and materials science. Chattopadhyay also has mentored scientists and students from across the world, including in the former Soviet Union, Japan, South Korea, China, India and Taiwan.

The science of superconductors

Chmaissem, a 15-year veteran professor at NIU, has an impressive list of accomplishments in the fields of condensed matter physics and materials science. His research has attracted a steady stream of funding and led to the creation and understanding of new magnetic material systems and superconducting materials.

Superconductors exhibit amazing properties. When cooled below certain temperatures, they conduct electricity without energy-sapping resistance. But the best known superconducting materials can operate only below minus 218 degrees Fahrenheit under ambient pressure—and the cooling process itself is expensive.

Today, superconductors are used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) devices and in scientific-research equipment, including particle accelerators. They have also been used to build prototype levitated trains.

For decades, scientists have sought to develop higher temperature superconductors, which could revolutionize the energy industry and lead to many more applications, such as powerful supercomputers, superefficient energy storage and other devices that now only exist in the imaginations of science fiction writers.

In a Nature Physics publication early this year, Chmaissem and NIU physicist Dennis Brown, along with Argonne scientists and NIU graduate students in physics, reported findings that explain the role and nature of a novel magnetic ground state in iron-based superconductors.

The publication represents just one example of Chmaissem’s research successes. His work has resulted in more than 135 publications in refereed, internationally recognized journals such as Nature, Nature Communications and the Physical Review Letters. He has presented invited talks worldwide, and his publications have been cited by other researchers nearly 5,000 times.

Additionally, Chmaissem has mentored three postdocs, eight graduate students and several undergrads in cutting-edge research at NIU and at Argonne National Laboratory.

“Omar is highly regarded internationally in his field,” Lurio said. “He has forged strong collaborations between NIU and Argonne National Laboratory, which has enabled his exceptional scholarly production. He is also highly valued here on campus, as a colleague and a terrific mentor to our students.”

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