Risto Nieminen: electronic-structure-based material discovery

Emeritus Professor Risto Nieminen of Aalto University, a computational and theoretical condensed-matter physicist, talks about his research and how computational models are driving forward material discovery. You can find just some of his published work here.

Q: What research projects are you and your group currently working on?

I became an emeritus this summer, but continue research efforts in a few projects. One of them is quantum plasmonics, where we apply time-­dependent density‐functional theory for collective excitations in nanoscale structures. I am also involved in a Europe-­wide project in data‐driven, electronic-­structure-­based materials discovery.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this field of research?

The computational methods and capabilities have reached the level where we can address problems with unprecedented complexity and scale. For plasmonics, this enables one to study how quantum effects such as tunneling influence sub-­wavelength optical phenomena, coupling electronic structure and electromagnetism. For materials discovery, machine-­learning methods can be used to extract knowledge from the rapidly expanding databases of computed electronic properties.

Q: Where do you think the field is heading?

With the rapid progress of time-resolved studies, e.g. photon-­excited spectroscopies at modern synchrotron sources, there is much demand for predictive computations of electron dynamics in condensed matter. Another example are photoinduced reactions and charge transfer, such as those involved in  photosynthesis and other biological processes.

The data‐driven materials discovery indicates to me that we are moving to a phase where electronic-­structure methods such as density-functional theory are routinely used in developing materials and structures over a huge range of engineering applications.

Q: What current problem facing humanity would you like science to provide a solution to?

In my opinion, the greatest concern is the rapid loss of biodiversity that humanity is witnessing today. This derives from the unsustainable use of natural resources by the growing population, with serious consequences to climate, oceans and land use. We need to use science to develop and adopt new technologies, for example in energy efficiency and alternative raw materials, to reduce the human footprint in the environment.

Q: What interests you outside of science?

Outside science, I am an outdoors enthusiast. This means backcountry hiking and cross-country skiing, kayaking, fishing and hunting, birdwatching and other similar endeavors.

Q: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my career as a physicist has been the chance to work on extremely interesting, relevant problems with highly talented and motivated students and colleagues from all around the world.

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