Our research

Physics is an exciting and dynamic subject that is continually evolving, and Exeter's reputation for high-quality research (90% of our work was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent) is a testament to the research pedigree of our staff, many of whom are world leaders in their field. We collaborate with internationally-leading scholars, industries and governmental bodies to ensure we are at the very heart of the most pioneering research and technology. This has enormous benefits for you as a student. Working to extend the frontiers of knowledge generates an innovative, lively atmosphere and the research undertaken gives physics at the University its own distinctive flavour. Lectures are illustrated with in-depth descriptions of recent discoveries and many of our option modules are based on our research interests. Students on the MPhys degrees can obtain first-hand experience of what it is like to conduct research by undertaking a project in one of our research groups during your third and fourth years. All students can apply to undertake a placement with our researchers during the summer vacation. 

Astrophysics

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.

>>> Read more about the research undertaken in the Astrophysics group

>>> Read about how our Astrophysics research is reflected in our undergraduate modules.

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, our Biomedical Physics group are now developing complementary expertise in the development and application of optical imaging and vibrational spectroscopy. Our work also considers a wide range of fundamental questions in modern biology and physiology.

>>> Read more about the research undertaken in the Biomedical Physics group

>>> Read about how our Biomedical Physics research is reflected in our undergraduate modules.

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.

>>> Read more about the research undertaken in the Electromagnetic and Acoustic Materials group

>>> Read about how our Electromagnetic and Acoustic Materials research is reflected in our undergraduate modules.

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.

>>> Read more about the research undertaken in the Quantum Systems and Nanomaterials group

>>> Read about how our Quantum Systems and Nanomaterials research is reflected in our undergraduate modules.

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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.

Metamaterials

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."

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.

In your first term at Exeter you will take the Introduction to Astrophysics class as a core module (except BSc Mathematics and Physics students). Not only will this introduce you to the theories of quantum mechanics, it will demonstrate how they are applied to a wide variety of astrophysical phenomena. You will develop a broad knowledge and understanding of the key ideas and language used by modern astronomers to describe and explain the observed Universe. Modules in later years (compulsory for Astrophysics programmes) include: Observing the Universe, which will give you a basic understanding of the universe and its contents, and astrophysical measurement techniques; Stars from Birth to Death, which takes the fundamental concepts of gravitation, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics to derive the properties of stars, their formation, evolution and death; Relativity and Cosmology, which includes an introduction to the general theory of relativity and the evolution of the Universe; Galaxies and High Energy Astrophysics, which delivers an overview of astronomical observations and theoretical modelling, in order to understand galaxies in the Universe, including the Milky Way, and their physical processes; and Solar and Extra-Solar Planets and Their Atmospheres, which is based on a major research theme at Exeter, and will show how theory and observations underpin our rapidly developing knowledge of planetary objects both inside and outside the solar system.

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.  Other 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 £53million 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.

Modules associated with our Biomedical Physics research build on the core modules in the first two years.  These classes are lectured by academics undertaking active research in this field, and include: The Physics of Living Systems, which adapts a synthetic approach: molecules-cells-tissue, emphasising the contributions of physics and the outstanding challenges; The Biophysics of Cells and Tissues, which describes the physical properties of tissues and their constituent cells, and their role in normal growth and the development of diseases; Physical Methods in Biology and Medicine, which discusses the principles and current techniques used for the understanding of biology at cellular and molecular level highlighting some of the contributions these approaches can make to medicine and the life sciences; and our newest module Soft Matterwhich offers insights into the complex and fascinating physics of various systems generally known as soft matter, and includes the interactions in colloidal systems, and the study of soft membranes and thin liquid films. 

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.

We use optical and electrical measurement techniques as well as neutron and synchrotron radiation sources around the world to study nanostructured magnetic materials that we both fabricate in Exeter and obtain from collaborators in academia and the magnetic recording industry. We are particularly interested in magnetic processes that occur on sub-nanosecond timescales, and which may lead to the reduction of read and write times in data storage systems, and enable the operation of ‘spintronic’ devices that exploit the electron spin. We have particular expertise in the use of ultra-fast lasers to obtain snapshots of the magnetic state of thin film-materials after they have been stimulated by either optical or magnetic field pulses.

There are many modules directly associated with this field of research. The Waves and Optics module in Year 1, and the two core courses in Electromagnetism, together with modules in Quantum Mechanics and Condensed Matter, prepare you for the research-led options. These include: Lasers, Materials and Nanoscale Probes for Quantum Applications which will develop your understanding of light and matter and how they may be used to provide assorted optoelectronic devices; Quantum Optics and Photonics, which explores how quantum physics may be harnessed to offer new and exciting opportunities, with topics including optical fibres, nonlinear optics, entangled states, cavity QED and negative index materials; and Ultrafast Physics, which covers areas of physics that emerged as a result of application of the state-of-the-art ultrafast measurement techniques in the study of spintronics, magnonics, plasmonics and metamaterials.

Graphene is a single atomic-layer carbon honeycomb structure that was first isolated in 2004. It has unique electronic, thermal and mechanical properties that are enabling the development of novel electronic devices such as flexible and transparent displays and energy harvesting devices. Exeter physicists discovered a new graphene-based material in 2012, named ‘GraphExeter’, which is the most highly conductive transparent material known, and has potential applications in flexible transparent electronics (for instance, electronic paper).

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.

There are four condensed matter and quantum mechanics modules in particular to prepare you for research-led courses associated with the Quantum Systems and Nanomaterials group. The core modules direct an education that includes the concepts and methods of quantum physics, nanomaterials, semiconductors and magnetism. Research-led options, lectured by our world-leading researchers, include: Principles of Theoretical Physics, which reviews the most fundamental theoretical ideas such as action, symmetries and path integrals, and explores the links between various fields of physics ranging from mechanics to quantum field theory; Nanostructures and Graphene Science, which explains the operation of quantum devices and demonstrates the application of this physics to technology; Quantum Many-Body Theory, uses methods such as Green functions, Feynman diagrams, and quantum field-theories to analyse phenomena including superfluidity and superconductivity.