University of Exeter funding: Light Waves meet Molecular Machines

Light Waves meet Molecular Machines: Feynman’s Dream of Nanotechnology - PhD (Funded) Ref: 3889

About the award


Academic Supervisor

Professor Frank Vollmer, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2020 or before. For eligible students the studentship will cover tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,009 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. We are inviting international applicants for this studentship. The student would be based at the Living Systems Institute in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Location: Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter, Devon.

Project Description:

Light waves are the most precise rulers to make precision measurements in time and space. They are used in instruments such as interferometers and atomic clocks. They measure length and time with exceedingly high accuracy. A recent impressive example of interferometry has been the detection of gravitational waves. LIGO, the interferometer to detect gravitational waves, has measured variations in space on the order of 10-18m! Our goal is to bring this kind of technology to the nanoscale, to detect and study single virus particles and single biomolecules directly with light. Such nanosensing technology is needed in order to understand how nature’s nanotechnology operates. This nanotechnology is needed to understand biophysical rules and design principles of biomolecular machinery. Once we understand the biophysics of nature’s nanotechnology, we may achieve Richard Feynman’s dream of building synthetic nano machinery from self-assembly, atom by atom. Please read Richard Feynman’s invitation to enter this new and exciting area in physics:

To take a first step in this direction, our aim is to miniaturise light wave interferometry on optical sensor chips. These sensor chips will provide us with an eye into the nanoworld to study nano and biophysics. This sensor technology will combine so called optical microcavities with plasmonics. Optical microcavities confine a light beam into a box, example for this is a Fabry-Perot cavity build by two opposing micro-mirrors. By adding a metal nanostructure to the box, the local light field can be dramatically enhanced, which potentially achieves the strong coupling between microcavity and single molecules. A light-driven metal nanoparticle exhibits the so-called localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR), at which the electromagnetic (EM) field is confined with a region much smaller than the cube of light wavelength, exceeding the refraction limit. The resulting enhancement factor of the local EM field can be as high as 103. Placing a single-molecule or quantum emitter within this region strongly raises the emitter-photon coupling strength as well as the sensitivity of a sensor. You will fabricate such optoplasmonic sensors composed of optical microcavity and plasmonic nanostructure for single molecule sensing. You will apply advanced physical concepts to improve the light matter interaction and sensitivity. For example, you will explore hybridized states of optical microcavities coupled to plasmonic nanostructures, and couple to the electronic and vibrational transitions of biomolecules. You will also apply sensing schemes by which the sensitivity of microcavities will be enhanced when operated at non-Hermitian spectral degeneracies known as exceptional points. For further information please visit

We are looking for well-motivated students with a passion and strong background in optics, applied electromagnetic theory, and ideally some knowledge in biosensing/imaging for this cutting-edge doctoral project.


1. Advanced Materials, 30, 1801246 (2018)

This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £15,009 per year tax-free stipend.  Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend.

Entry requirements

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. 

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.0 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 
• CV
• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
• Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
• Up to two references from referees familiar with your academic work. If your referees prefer, they can email the reference direct to quoting the studentship reference number 3889.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 30th June 2020.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus the following weeks. The position will remain open until filled. Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor


Application deadline:30th June 2020
Duration of award:per year
Contact: STEMM PGR Admissions