Prestigious European research grant awarded to GSI physicists


The two GSI physicists Marco Durante and Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo have been honored with the prestigious advanced research grant of the European Union. The European Research Council (ERC) awarded them each an "ERC Advanced Grant". The renowned prize underlines the outstanding quality of scientific research at GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung and the future accelerator center FAIR, which is being built there. Another "ERC Advanced Grant" goes to Professor Beatriz Jurado from the Centre Etudes Nucléaires de Bordeaux Gradignan (CENBG), who will use the GSI/FAIR facilities for the execution of the experimental part of her project, as outlined in her application.

The grants are funding and acknowledgment in equal measure: They are awarded exclusively on the basis of the scientific excellence of the projects submitted and are aimed at established researchers from all disciplines whose highly innovative projects go considerably beyond the current state of the art and open up new areas of research. They are endowed with a maximum of 2.5 million euros each over a period of five years.

Marco Durante is Head of the GSI Biophysics Research Department and professor at the TU Darmstadt Department of Physics, Institute of Condensed Matter of Physics. He is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of radiation biology and medical physics, especially for therapy with heavy ions and radioprotection in space. He made important scientific progress in the field of biodosimetry of charged particles, optimization of particle therapy, and shielding of heavy ions in space.

In his new project entitled "Biomedical Applications of Radioactive ion Beams (BARB)", Marco Durante intends to further develop tumor treatment with charged particle therapy. “Particle therapy is rapidly growing and is potentially the most effective and precise radiotherapy technique. However, range uncertainty and poor image guidance limit its applications. Improving accuracy is the key to broadening the applicability of particle therapy", explained Marco Durante. This could also allow better treatment of smaller metastases or tumors close to critical structures, and to small targets in non-cancer diseases, such as ventricular ablations in cardiac arrhythmia.

The new idea is to use the same beam for treatment and for imaging during treatment. Radioactive ion beams are the ideal tool, but their intensity is not yet sufficient for therapeutic applications. Only cutting-edge facilities such as FAIR and the "FAIR Phase 0" experimental program underway at GSI/FAIR can generate such intense beams. Marco Durante explained: “With FAIR-phase-0 high-intensity beams of short-lived isotopes of carbon and oxygen nuclei will be used to enable simultaneous treatment and visualization. This can significantly reduce the range uncertainty and further advance the applicability of particle therapy.” The beam will be visualized in the target position using an innovative Gamma-PET detector that will be built by Prof. Katia Parodi at LMU Munich, partner and beneficiary of the BARB project. “BARB is an experiment showing the enormous potential of FAIR. It is indeed a collaboration between the APPA and NUSTAR pillars of the FAIR project”, said Marco Durante.

Marco Durante studied physics and got his PhD at the University Federico II in Italy. His post doc positions took him to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Texas and to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan. During his studies, he specialized in charged particle therapy, cosmic radiation, radiation cytogenetics and radiation biophysics. He has received numerous awards for his research, including the Galileo Galilei prize from the European Federation of Organizations for Medical Physics, the IBA Europhysics Prize of the European Physical Society (EPS) and the Bacq & Alexander award of the European Radiation Research Society (ERRS).

More about Professor Marco Durante's research

Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo is Head of the GSI Theory Research Department, professor at the Theory Center of the Institute for Nuclear Physics (Department of physics, TU Darmstadt) and principal investigator of the SFB 1245 “Nuclei: From Fundamental Interactions to Structure and Stars”. He is recognized internationally as an expert in the field of the nucleosynthesis of chemical elements in stars. He was a co-leader of the international collaboration that predicted in 2010 that the synthesis of heavy elements in a neutron star merger leads to a characteristic electromagnetic signal named kilonova. In 2017, space and ground observatories were actually able to detect the predicted electromagnetic signal after the merger of two neutron stars.

In his new project, entitled "Probing r-process nucleosynthesis through its electromagnetic signatures (KILONOVA)" Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo will further develop these approaches. He explained: „The project aims to answer one of the fundamental questions in physics: How and where are the heavy elements from iron to uranium made by the r-process?”

The confirmation of the theoretical predictions on the origin of heavy elements through the observation of gravitational waves of a neutron star merger in combination with characteristic electromagnetic signals in 2017 had provided the sensational first direct indication that r-process elements are produced during neutron star mergers. “Additional events are expected to be detected in the following years. To fully exploit such opportunities it is fundamental to combine an improved description of the exotic neutron-rich nuclei involved in the r-process with sophisticated astrophysical simulations to provide accurate prediction of r-process nucleosynthesis yields and their electromagnetic signals”, explained Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo. These predictions could then be confronted with observations. “Together with the unique experimental capabilities of the GSI/FAIR facility, it constitutes a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of r-process nucleosynthesis.”

Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo studied physics and received his PhD from the Autonomous University of Madrid. He specialized in nuclear structure as well as nuclear astrophysics. As a postdoc, he gained experience at the California Institute of Technology in the USA, followed by research stays of several years at the Aarhus University in Denmark and the University of Basel in Switzerland. His research on the nucleosynthesis of chemical elements in stars has received multiple recognition, including the "Gustav Hertz Preis" of the German Physical Society (DPG) “for the discovery of a new nucleosynthesis process: The νp-process”.

More about Professor Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo's research

The two research colleagues Marco Durante and Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo also emphasized: “We are grateful to the European Research Council for giving us a great opportunity with its funding and we look forward to working together in our respective teams. Our aim is to go significantly beyond the current state of research with our projects and to open up new, forward-looking areas of research. The future accelerator center FAIR and the already existing experimental program are central building blocks for this and will enable us to do so many pioneering things".

The Scientific Managing Director of GSI and FAIR, Professor Paolo Giubellino emphasized: "It is a fantastic achievement. I am extremely pleased about the recognition of these outstanding scientists who, with their innovative projects and their commitment, are tackling important challenges in nuclear physics and medical physics. The grants demonstrate the outstanding quality of scientific research at GSI and FAIR. They go to two of our flagship fields: nuclear astrophysics and biomedical applications of nuclear physics. In addition, the grants underline the outstanding research perspectives opened by our FAIR phase-0 program. With FAIR, we will be able to further expand the prospects of such groundbreaking research and enable important pioneering achievements.”

GSI and FAIR are also thrilled about the award of another ERC Advanced Grant to Professor Beatriz Jurado from the Centre Etudes Nucléaires de Bordeaux Gradignan (CENBG), part of the French National Centre for Scientific Research CNRS. The experimental part of the project will be performed at GSI/FAIR.

Beatriz Jurado has been closely associated with GSI and FAIR for a long time through her nuclear physics research. Her main research areas are low-energy nuclear physics, nuclear reactions and fission. Already her doctoral thesis, which she defended at the University of Santiago de Compostela, was realized at the GSI's fragment separator FRS. She is also involved in the NUSTAR collaboration, one of the four major research pillars of FAIR, as a member of the Resource Board and was, among other things, a guest at GSI as “Visiting Professor” of the ExtreMe Matter Institute EMMI.

In her EU-funded project entitled “Nuclear rEaCTions At storage Rings (NECTAR)” she wants to further advance the measuring capabilities in nuclear physics research. Her goal is to develop a new methodology to indirectly infer neutron-induced cross sections of unstable nuclei. These cross sections are essential for nuclear astrophysics, since most of the heavy elements in the Universe are produced by neutron-induced reactions in stars, and also for applications in nuclear technology. Her work is an experimental specification of the project of Gabriel Martínez-Pinedo.

“However, their measurement is very complicated as both projectile and target are radioactive. We will overcome these limitations by producing the nuclei formed in the neutron-induced reactions of interest with surrogate reactions involving radioactive heavy-ion beams and stable, light target nuclei. We will measure the decay probabilities for fission, neutron and gamma-ray emission of the nuclei produced by the surrogate reaction”, explained Beatriz Jurado. These probabilities provide precious information to constrain models and will enable much more accurate predictions of the desired neutron cross sections.

The experimental part of Beatriz Jurado´s project will be realized at the accelerator facility on the GSI/FAIR campus as part of FAIR Phase 0, using the storage rings ESR and CRYRING. Beatriz Jurado described: “The storage rings of GSI/FAIR are unique devices where revolving ion beams of outstanding quality repeatedly interact with ultra-thin, windowless gas-jet targets. We will take advantage of these exceptional features to measure decay probabilities of many unstable nuclei with unrivalled precision”.

Professor Paolo Giubellino is very delighted with the execution of the NECTAR project at the GSI/FAIR facility: “This underlines once more the attractiveness of our laboratory for the international research community and the quality of our research infrastructures already during FAIR Phase 0. We are very pleased that a renowned scientist like Beatriz Jurado will join us for her experimental research. This is also a great recognition for us".

The President of the European Research Council (ERC), Professor Mauro Ferrari, commented: “I am glad to announce a new round of ERC grants that will back cutting-edge, exploratory research, set to help Europe and the world to be better equipped for what the future may hold. That’s the role of blue sky research. These senior research stars will cut new ground in a broad range of fields, including the area of health. I wish them all the best in this endeavour and, at this time of crisis, let me pay tribute to the heroic and invaluable work of the scientific community as a whole.” (BP/IP)

More information

Press release of the European Research Council