Our research

Physics and Astronomy research


Our Astrophysics group is one of the largest in the UK studying star formation and extra-solar planets. Our research spans various themes devoted to the general understanding of stars and planets, from their birth to their death. The strength of these activities relies on the remarkable synergy between Exeter’s complementary expertise in theory, applied mathematics, climate science, numerical simulations and observations.

Our researchers study star and planet formation based on state-of-the-art numerical simulations and produce theoretical models describing the life of stars and planets that provide the theoretical foundation to analyse the outcome of observational programs. Exeter astronomers observe using the largest facilities in the world including the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a facility that is particularly powerful for the detection and characterisation of discs around newly-formed stars within which planetary systems are forming.

The Astrophysics group is also developing a new field of research in extra-solar planet climatology. We have built strong links with the Met Office in Exeter, taking advantage of meteorologists’ expertise to apply the sophisticated tools they have developed for Earth-weather predictions and climate studies to the atmospheres of extra-solar planets. The application of these methods to the study of distant new worlds, which could harbour new life forms, is a fascinating problem in modern astrophysics.

Biomedical Physics

For decades physics has played a crucial role in the development of new techniques for medicine and is increasingly important in understanding the behaviour of biological systems. With many years’ experience of magnetic resonance imaging, we are now developing complementary expertise in the development and application of optical imaging and vibrational spectroscopy. We have recently established a multiphoton microscopy laboratory. Multiphoton techniques are attracting a great deal of interest as they offer increased depth penetration and molecular contrast without the use of dyes. We are also collaborating with major pharmaceutical companies to develop novel optical approaches to drug discovery.

Our work also considers a wide range of fundamental questions in modern biology and physiology. Current activities range from studies of the cell membrane, through to investigations of the ways in which cells sense and respond to physical signals, to assessment of the mechanical behaviour of tissues. This work helps us to understand processes that may be involved in diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer, and so develop novel therapeutic approaches. Many of our researchers in biomedical physics are working closely with the development of the University’s new £50million Living Systems Institute, situated alongside the Physics Building. From late 2016 it will bring together leading mathematicians, physicists, cell and molecular biologists, biomedical scientists and engineers to apply investigative techniques to make biology a predictive as well as observational science.

Electromagnetic and Acoustic Materials

We concentrate on the fundamental study of the electromagnetic (e.g. visible, terahertz and microwave) and acoustic (sound) properties of structured materials. This includes plasmonics, magnonics, spintronics and the photonics of bio-inspired and disordered structures. Our work involves material synthesis and nanofabrication, imaging and characterisation using microwaves, ultrafast laser and synchrotron sources, as well as ultrasound, results from which are combined with numerical and analytic theory in quantum optics and quantum information science. We host the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Metamaterials. Our researchers are exploring the underlying physics, through to material engineering, feeding industry and academia with graduates to exploit this exciting field.

Substantial effort is devoted to exploring the consequences of the merger of two recent developments: spatial transformations and metamaterials. The idea of spatial transformations is to provide entirely new methods to manipulate the emission, propagation and absorption of waves and can lead to exciting concepts such as invisibility cloaking. We are developing new ways to generate and control THz radiation, and recent innovative studies into the manner in which molecules are influenced by their optical surroundings are opening up a new area of nanotechnology. Several patents have been filed and we are working closely with industry. The study of highly evolved biological systems that strongly manipulate light and colour, such as those found in insects and plants, continues to offer exciting opportunities to inspire transformational developments in technological devices.  Another area, currently of much national interest, concerns quantum technologies both from a fundamental perspective and also with regards to device development.

Quantum Systems and Nanomaterials (incorporating the Centre for Graphene Science)

The properties of systems that consist of up to a few-hundred atoms can differ remarkably from those of macroscopic devices, because the effects of the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics dominate the behaviour of such small systems. This paves the way to the discovery of new physical properties and exciting phenomena. The emerging class of atomically-thin materials offers easy access to a new realm of optical, electrical and thermal properties which are the focus of research in the Quantum Systems and Nanomaterials group.

Our experimental work is supported by a world-leading team of theoretical scientists developing analytical and numerical models to unveil the physics of nanoscale systems. The close links between theoretical and experimental work within our group has opened new research areas of strategic interest for fundamental and applied science. We are also currently exploiting the potential of our discoveries such as GraphExeter to develop novel functional electronic devices in partnership with a wide range of industrial partners such as Nokia.  We are able to create nanostructured materials and devices using our recently-built state-of-the-art clean-room facility equipped with focused ion beam and electron beam systems, and we use optical, electrical transport and thermodynamic techniques to study these structures at temperatures barely 0.01 degrees above absolute zero and in high magnetic fields.

The Exeter Observatory

We maintain an on-site observatory for undergraduate teaching purposes. The observatory has recently been upgraded (2015) to a robotic facility with a computer-controlled mount and dome, 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain, CCD and filters. You can read more about the observatory here.

Applying physics to human biology

A multiphoton image of the lamprey annular cartilage using a combination of imaging modalities. The Biomedical Physics research group have the use of the Multiphoton Imaging and Spectroscopy Laboratory.


Some of our researchers are exploring "metamaterials" - artificial materials that have acoustic or electromagnetic properties that do not exist in nature. You can read about our EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Metamaterials here.

Centre of Graphene Science

An adaption of graphene, "GraphExeter" was invented in our Centre of Graphene Science.  This new material promises to be a viable and attractive replacement to indium tin oxide (ITO), the main conductive material currently used in electronics, such as ‘smart’ mirrors or windows, or even solar panels. 

Exeter professor is IOP president

Professor Sambles has been professor of experimental physics at the University of Exeter since 1991, where he is academic lead of the large electromagnetic and acoustic materials research group. On taking up the role as IOP president, he said "It is an opportunity for me to continue the outstanding work of the Institute in developing both the public awareness of, and inclusiveness in, physics and furthering the understanding of the value of physics to society in the years to come."