Iowa State physicists win W.M. Keck Foundation grant to develop nanoscope

AMES, Iowa – Researchers from Iowa State University’s department of physics and astronomy are working to build a powerful instrument capable of exploring and tuning materials in ways that could help solve the world’s energy, information processing and data storage needs.

The researchers call their proposed instrument an extreme quantum terahertz nanoscope. Its primary function will be to discover materials and material functions at unprecedented scales of space, time and energy, enabling studies at scales that are ultrafast, ultrasmall and at very low frequency. The instrument will also allow researchers to control the materials they study.

“We want to develop a microscope that doesn’t exist yet,” said Jigang Wang, the project leader, an Iowa State associate professor of physics and astronomy and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. “We’re trying to see new things by looking across these three dimensions simultaneously. We want to understand how the electrons move and communicate in order to produce fascinating properties of materials.

“All of this will create a new paradigm to understand materials, control their properties and have far-reaching consequences to promote science and future technology.”

The W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles – one of the country’s largest philanthropic organizations – recently awarded a three-year, $1.3 million grant to support construction, commissioning and initial use of the nanoscope. The project will be known as the W.M. Keck Initiative in Ultrafast Quantum Microscopy of Emergent Orders.

Iowa State is also supporting the project with funds from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the department of physics and astronomy. And the Ames Laboratory is supporting the project with specialized laboratory space in the laboratory’s new Sensitive Instrument Facility.

The grant was made through the Iowa State University Foundation, a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to securing and managing gifts and grants that benefit Iowa State.

A diverse team and extreme scales

Wang said the quantum nanoscope project was made possible by the expertise, technical resources and close collaboration of Iowa State and Ames Laboratory scientists. The project team includes: 

  • Wang who has expertise in ultra-fast optics and terahertz spectroscopy of complex materials.
  • Zhe Fei, an Iowa State assistant professor of physics and astronomy and an Ames Laboratory associate, who has expertise in scanning near-field optical microscopy.
  • Paul C. Canfield, an Iowa State Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy and an Ames Laboratory senior physicist, who has expertise in new materials design and discovery.
  • Costas Soukoulis, an Iowa State Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy and an Ames Laboratory senior physicist, and Thomas Koschny, an Ames Laboratory associate scientist, who have expertise in plasmonics, the study of light waves and metal surfaces, and metamaterials, materials with properties not found in nature.

Wang said the researchers will work together to develop a nanoscope that collects data at three extreme scales: billionths of a meter in space (nanometers), quadrillionths of a second in time (femtoseconds) and thousandths of electron volts in energy (milli-electron volts or terahertz).

He said each of those three dimensions – space, time and energy – is like the side of a triangle.

“On each side of that triangle humanity has achieved tremendous progress and understanding,” he said. “But what about the region on the inside of the triangle, this inaccessible region that combines the best of all three fields? For many outstanding scientific and technological problems, our answers are largely limited by our inability to see inside this region. Through this award from the Keck Foundation, this instrument we’re building will break down the barriers and allow us to see what’s there.”

When the instrument’s superconducting magnet, scanning near field microscopy probes, ultrafast lasers and other components are assembled, Wang said the nanoscope will be commissioned by studying graphene, a thin layer of carbon atoms packed in a honeycomb. The instrument’s initial experiments will study a high-temperature, iron-based superconductor, a material that can conduct electricity with no resistance and support exotic magnetic properties when cooling in a fashion different from conventional metals.

The researchers will also experiment with using the nanoscope to manipulate electrons so they can tune materials with minimal heating of the samples. Study goals include discovering new states of matter and establishing the shortest times and smallest lengths for these states to switch.

The researchers wrote that they expect the nanoscope and its measurements to “reveal the secrets of emergent-order phenomena and manipulate them at will, a monumental challenge in this age of novel materials.”


Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical, science and engineering research. The Foundation also maintains an undergraduate education program that promotes distinctive learning and research experiences for students in the sciences and in the liberal arts, and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth from low-income families, special needs populations and safety-net services. For more information, please visit