"It feels rather unreal, but you just can't give up!"

Andriy Styervoyedov explains how a new German-Ukrainian Core of Excellence aims to help rebuild Ukrainian research

The Faculty of Physics and Technology at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University is located on the northern edge of Kharkiv, just about 25 kilometres from the Russian border. It is the part of the Ukrainian city closest to the border. The windows of the rectangular building are broken, and parts of the ochre-coloured facade bear fire damage. Now, the institute looks like a ruin, but before the war, joint German-Ukrainian cutting-edge research was being planned here. Scientists from Kharkiv are collaborating with researchers from Stuart Parkin's department at the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics in Halle within the Plasma-Spin Energy Core of Excellence, which the Federal Ministry of Research is funding with 2.5 million euros starting June 1, 2024, for four years. The team includes Andriy Styervoyedov, who is from Ukraine and has been researching new materials for spintronics in Halle (Saale) since February 2015. In this interview, he talks about the situation of his colleagues in Kharkiv, how the rebuilding of Ukrainian research is being prepared, and plans for the post-war period.

The interview was conducted by Peter Hergersberg.

Mr. Styervoyedov, how are your colleagues in Kharkiv?

Andriy Styervoyedov: I try to regularly contact people at my former faculty to find out how they are doing. The situation around Kharkiv is not very good. There are constant alarms, and during meetings, you occasionally hear explosions. Especially with glide bombs, the alarm sometimes comes only after the explosion. My colleagues are used to this situation, even though they often have neither electricity nor heating. In winter, the temperature in some labs is often only five to six degrees.

How can research be conducted under these conditions and so close to the front?  It feels rather unreal, but you can't just give up. My colleagues in Kharkiv continue working as best they can, including on our project. Together we are developing new methods for creating atomic layers for spintronics and new plasma sources. These will first be built in Halle and brought to Kharkiv once the war hopefully ends someday.

Stuart Parkin's group researches spintronics, which uses the spin of electrons as information carriers, unlike conventional electronics that use charge. What is the Plasma-Spin Energy project about?

Spintronics can make computers faster and more energy-efficient. For this, we develop components from very thin, ordered, and pure layers of various materials. Our partners at Karazin University have a lot of experience with plasma technology, which they typically use to create thicker layers, for example, for medical technology. Together we are now developing devices to create very thin layers using plasma technology. To do this, we need to better control the chaotic processes in the plasma. We already have some ideas on how this could work. It's a win-win situation. We are not only helping the group at Karazin University, but we also benefit from their know-how.

How are you approaching this project to ensure Ukrainian research can be rebuilt after the war?

We are currently filling two PhD positions, one postdoc position, and one engineering position in Halle with Ukrainians who will return to Ukraine after the war. In Kharkiv, we have a larger team of experienced scientists and engineers, as well as two PhD students and two postdocs. While the plasma devices will initially be developed in Halle, the team in Kharkiv is helping us with the development and will simulate the plasma processes. The Ukrainian researchers will also have online access to the devices and can conduct experiments remotely. This way, it will be relatively easy and quick to get the new devices up and running in Ukraine, as the people there will already be trained on them.

How optimistic are you that you can bring the new devices to Kharkiv within the four-year project timeframe?

I really hope the war ends soon. It caught me completely off guard. I was in Kharkiv from February 12 to 19, 2022, because we were already working with Karasin University. Just before I flew to Ukraine, Stuart Parkin called me and said I shouldn't go because the war might start. I just couldn’t believe it and decided to fly, as all project meetings were scheduled in Kharkiv. As late as February 18, the situation in Kharkiv seemed completely normal; people were sitting in cafes and restaurants, and hardly anyone seemed to be expecting a war. I just hope the war ends as suddenly as it started. All we can do at the moment is to be prepared.  We also have many plans for the post-war period. We want to work together long-term, not just for four years. Then we want to commercialize our developments and possibly create a German-Ukrainian spin-off company from the Core of Excellence, which might bring new ideas for research.


More about Andriy Styervoyedov: Styervoyedov graduated from V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University and earned his PhD in Kharkiv. In 2012, he received the President of Ukraine's Award for Young Scientists. Since 2012, he has been working in Germany, first at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin and then, since February 2015, at the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics in Halle (Saale), researching new materials for spintronics.

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