GENERICO.ruScienceSpace as a factory of life. Large-scale projects attract scientists to Russia

Space as a factory of life. Large-scale projects attract scientists to Russia

MOSCOW, October 12 Russian scientists who return from Western countries to domestic scientific organizations are a reality of today. Are there conditions for advanced scientific research in Russia? What opportunities do megagrants provide for this? Ivan Antonov, a senior researcher at the Samara branch of the Lebedev Physical Institute, an associate professor at the Department of Physics at Samara University, told the correspondent about this.
– Ivan Olegovich, why did you decide to return to Russia?
– I went to the USA in 2005 to study graduate school. When I left, I expected to return at some point. After graduating from graduate school in 2013, I continued to engage in scientific work in the USA, and I had a good scientific career. I was looking for a professor position at a first-level university with the opportunity to have my own well-equipped laboratory.

On the other hand, I watched how well the laboratory was developing in the Samara branch of the Physical Institute named after. P.N. Lebedev RAS (FIAN), where I, in fact, began my career after graduating from university. In 2021, I was invited to work there, and I returned to Russia. Until now, I have no doubts about the correctness of the choice made.

– What kind of research are you doing? Why is this topic important for the development of science?

– I work at the intersection of chemistry and physics. He defended his dissertation in the specialty “physical chemistry”, but, in fact, he always studied chemical physics. Using spectroscopy methods, he studied molecules from heavy atoms of uranium and thorium actinides in the gas phase.
He worked for four years at the American Sandia National Laboratory, where he studied the combustion of fuels from a chemical point of view. And for another four years he studied atomic, molecular and optical physics in a direction that includes the creation of quantum computers and quantum frequency standards.
Now in Russia I work in several directions at once. For example, I participate in the development of ion cryogenic traps used in experiments with ultracold atoms and molecules. There are a lot of interesting things there, and I would like to develop in this area.
Today there is a lot of talk about quantum technologies with an emphasis on the fact that a quantum computer will be able to crack any codes or solve some unsolvable problems. In my opinion, the true value of this research is to learn how to manipulate matter at the level of individual molecules, individual quanta. This will allow us to create analytical tools with the highest possible sensitivity.

Imagine that you have one molecule that you can twist, disassemble, assemble, learn everything about it. Or, for example, transfer it to the desired quantum state, force it to react with another molecule the way you want. Fundamental research in this area will sooner or later yield applied results.
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– Tell us about your work on megagrants.
– Employees of Samara University under the leadership of University of Florida professor Alexander Mebel won a megagrant in 2018 to create physically based combustion models.< br />
Alexander Mebel organized a team of specialists at the university who are good at calculating quantum mechanical molecular properties and the rate of chemical reactions in order to study the processes of soot formation in a flame. And they made very serious progress in this direction – they discovered the fundamental mechanisms of reactions and published many articles. Although the megagrant ended several years ago, the created laboratory continues to work fruitfully. I also collaborate with this team.
Currently, the Samara branch of the Lebedev Physical Institute is implementing a mega-grant in astrochemistry with the intriguing title “The Emergence and Evolution of Organic Compounds in Our Galaxy.” We are creating an experimental setup to study the kinetics of reactions occurring in space. These are reactions that occur under extreme conditions at ultra-low temperatures under the influence of radiation. Few people understand them yet.
In many ways, this megagrant has something in common with the previous one, but unlike soot and combustion, we are working on ultra-cold ice films, which we are going to grow on a metal target, irradiate them with ultraviolet photons or electrons, and then see what happens by evaporating the reaction products into the gas phase and analyzing them using a mass spectrometer.

– Would you like to continue working on megagrants?

– Yes, we plan to apply for a new mega-grant. It is highly likely that he will use an experimental installation built at Samara University. We are ready to use our unique scientific facility and our skills gained during the previous mega-grant to achieve even more significant results.
In principle, it would be interesting to study materials with reduced dimensionality – films, one-dimensional materials, organometallic clusters. For example, there are complexes – graphene oxides – with metals that have a wide range of applications. From a practical point of view, organometallic complexes, which are used as anti-knock fuel additives, are very promising. We will study them using our installation at Samara University.
All these areas are related either to reactions, or to spectroscopy, or to quantum technologies. We will try to win the project in order to participate in this work.
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– What, in your opinion, are the advantages and disadvantages of working on megagrants?

– A megagrant is a great idea. This is a large amount of funding, which can not only pay salaries to performers, but also purchase the most advanced equipment and create a world-class laboratory, which will then produce not only a first-class scientific product, but also give impetus to the development of new high-tech technologies.
Unfortunately, we have problems with purchasing equipment. Typically, mega-grant funding comes in the middle of the year, and the necessary equipment cannot be purchased until the end of the year. For example, turbomolecular pumps needed to produce ultra-high vacuum are made by three or four companies in the world. But they make them to order, about six months in advance with full prepayment. And according to the terms of the megagrant, we must purchase equipment with full post-payment.
We are looking for a supplier who takes all financial risks, and we overpay him. But even in this case, if we receive money in the middle of the year (and before that we cannot conclude any contracts at all), we simply physically do not have time to order what we want. This situation has been going on for several years, and we are not alone.
Abroad, this is usually solved by transferring money to the next year. Our reporting requirements are such that nothing can be transferred or this is done as a general exception. This greatly harms their work, because scientists cannot order the necessary devices with a long production period, which we do not produce. It's sad to watch.

– What scientific results do you plan to achieve?

– In the field of astrochemical reactions, I would be very interested in studying the possibilities of forming nucleic acid precursors in outer space.
This is quite feasible to do, because the nucleotides that must be formed are strong, stable molecules. If you take all the necessary atoms in the required proportion as part of simple molecules found in outer space, pump energy into them with radiation of tens of electron volts per atom, then the molecules that hold them will fall apart, reassemble, and with some probability nucleotides will be formed.< br />This is what, in principle, should happen in space on the surface of cosmic dust particles. A thin film of gases that exist in outer space is formed there – methane, ammonia and some slightly more complex molecules such as methanol or acetonitrile.
We know that the process of formation of these molecules, the nitrogenous bases of nucleic acids, is similar to the well-studied process of soot formation. The same radical reactions, only in two or three places carbon is replaced by nitrogen. We know theoretically that they should occur; it remains to experimentally prove that they occur. This will be a very interesting result. It would mean that the basis for life, the molecular building blocks, could have formed in space.

Ultimately, we would like to create a kinetic model of the formation of certain organic molecules in space, with an understanding of the mechanisms and rates of reactions. With its help, we could simulate the evolution of a gas and dust cloud during the formation of a star in space, predict the evolution of our Solar system, including from the moment of formation, understand what chemical substances were synthesized on ice-covered dust particles, so that later, sticking together, form comets, which subsequently could have brought the first building blocks for biomolecules to Earth. This is our big goal.

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