Research

Undergraduate physics student Peter West in Al Meldrum

The Department of Physics at the University of Alberta supports a broad spectrum of research areas, from astronomic-scale studies of the Universe to theories about infinitesimally small subatomic particles. Our featured research areas are:

Astronomy and Astrophysics

Our research group combines observational, computational and theoretical techniques to explore a wide range of open questions about the physics and properties of stars, galaxies and the Universe, focusing on probing how stars and stellar systems evolve, the properties of and physics behind the most extreme astrophysical objects (neutron stars, black holes, and quasars), and the physics and structure of the Universe on extragalactic scales.

Group members observe with the most technologically advanced telescopes, stretching across the electromagnetic spectrum, including the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (optical), NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (optical) and Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray), ESA's XMM-Newton (X-ray) and Planck (microwave) missions, and NRAO's EVLA and VLBA antennae (radio). We perform the latest computer simulations using the extensive high performance computing resources of WestGrid.

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Biophysics

Biological physics uses the tools and concepts of physics to understand the principles and mechanisms underlying the processes that are fundamental to living systems, from the behaviour of biological molecules like proteins to the functioning of cells and organisms.

Research in Biophysics at the University of Alberta explores a range of experimental and computational problems, including how protein and RNA structures fold, mechanisms of neurodegeneration and cancer, how cells respond to radiation, the role of quantum effects in biology, and improved methods for discovering new drugs. These studies take advantage of tools like advanced single-molecule force and fluorescence spectroscopy, THz laser sources, and high-performance computing facilities. Group members also collaborate extensively with colleagues in the life sciences and medicine.

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Computational Physics

Computational physics can be seen as the evolution of the field that was once called Mathematical Physics. Such an evolution has been brought about by the tremendous technological progress, especially that made over the past two decades, in the development of large scale computing facilities, and their ensuing utilization to the solution of problems in physics which do not lend themselves to exact analytical treatments.

Research in the field of computational physics seeks to develop general, powerful algorithms applicable to diverse problems in areas of physics that could be very far from one another (e.g., quantum chromodynamics and statistical mechanics). Research in computational physics at University of Alberta focuses on the development of novel Monte Carlo methods applicable to current problems of quantum statistical mechanics.

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Condensed Matter Physics

The University of Alberta boasts a large community of condensed matter physicists, including internationally recognized senior faculty members and a new generation of junior faculty pursuing hard and soft materials physics on the cutting edge. CMP researchers have access to an extraordinary collection of new laboratory tools at the University of Alberta, including the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), a National Research Council facility located on campus; the University of Alberta's NanoFab; high performance computing resources at WestGrid; and innovative labs custom-built by Department of Physics researchers.

Our research objectives span exploratory, applied, and clinical lines of investigation. A partial list of topics includes superconductivity, semiconductor physics, superfluids, supersolids, low-temperature physics, nanomagnetism, surface science, molecular electronics, quantum information, nanomechanics, tunneling phenomena, nanoscale properties of solids, terahertz spectroscopy, ultrafast phenomena, photonics, quantum dots, and topics overlapping with the biophysics area.

Theoretical areas of interest include a particularly strong effort in quantum many-body problems—especially as they relate to thermal and quantum phase transitions. A variety of computational tools is used to study both strongly correlated electrons and bose gases. The latter can become superfluid, or maybe even supersolid, while the former can give rise to various exotic states of matter; examples are unusual forms of magnetism, spin liquids, superconductivity, polaronic or Kondo-like behaviour, and even ‘relativistic’ tendencies (as in graphene).

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Cosmology and Gravity Physics

There are two big problems we are trying to understand: What was the origin of our Universe and what is its final state.  Gravity plays the key role in the solution of these problems. The Einstein equations are used to explain the dynamics of the Universe as a whole and the large scale structure formation in it. They also predict black holes, the "mysterious" objects which are final states of evolution of compact masses. In our research we focus on classical and quantum gravity and its applications. 

The main directions of our research include:

  • black hole physics (Hawking radiation, thermodynamics, information, new solutions, and particle motion around black holes);
  • extra dimensions;
  • classical cosmology;
  • quantum physics in curved spacetime; and
  • quantum cosmology (arrow of time, quantum state of the Universe, and observations).

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Geophysics

The goal of research in this area is to advance understanding of Earth structure and evolution through the application of physical principles. Activities include experimental, theoretical, computational, and field studies applied to fundamental research, and to the economic development and environmental protection of our planet.

The wide variety of research in Geophysics at the University of Alberta includes both fundamental and more applied geophysical science projects. Current research focuses on the field of geophysical data processing, theoretical and applied seismology, earthquake studies, geodynamics, geomagnetism and paleomagnetism, magnetotellurics, environmental geophysics, geothermal energy, atmosphere-ocean dynamics, and planetary geophysics.

Our undergraduate programs lead to the designation of Professional Geophysicist, while our graduate programs offer world-leading research opportunities and prepare students for careers in the field.

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Particle Physics

Particle physics is the study of the fundamental constituents of matter and their interactions. We study physics on the smallest scale possible, over 100 million times smaller than an atom. This physics dominated the early universe moments after the Big Bang and paradoxically shaped the cosmos on the largest scale possible. Particle physics research at the University of Alberta is carried out by two main groups:

  • The Experimental Group: Experimentalists build and use detectors to detect and measure particle interactions. We use two different techniques: high energy particle collisions produced in a lab by accelerators or observation of particles produced by or existing in nature. Although these techniques are very different they address the same physics in complementary ways.
  • The Theory Group: In particle physics the complex nature of the calculations to make physical predictions requires the work of experts who concentrate on developing the mathematical techniques to make these calculations possible. Our theory group specializes in developing and using computer algorithms to manipulate and solve the extremely complex algebraic expressions encountered when calculating high order Feynman diagrams.

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Plasma Physics

Plasma physics is an important field of study in many research activities in the Department. Plasmas are central in the physics of magnetic and inertial confinement fusion experiments. Their dynamics are key in many laser processes and applications, including laser wakefield particle acceleration. They are also ubiquitous in our near-space and cosmic environment.

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Space Physics

Space Physics involves the study of charged particles and magnetic fields in the invisible realm above and beyond the atmospheres of planets. It includes the study of the Sun's corona, the ionosphere and magnetosphere of planets, the heliosphere, and the local interstellar medium. The ultimate challenge of space physics is to understand the physical concepts behind space weather and to someday be able to accurately predict it.

Ground-based observations of sun-spot cycles, cosmic rays, spectacular displays of the aurora borealis, and the pointing direction of comet tails established the basic foundation for the field of space physics. The development of plasma physics, and the launch of rockets and artificial satellites, opened the gateway to space plasma physics. It is now understood that solar activity and the sunspot cycle, control the flow of the solar wind, which in turn modulates cosmic ray intensities, and energizes the magnetospheres and ionospheres of planets. What we learn from studying our Sun and the environment of the heliosphere, can readily be applied to other stellar astrophysical objects and systems throughout the universe. Therefore, by studying space plasmas, we gain an understanding of the universe as a whole.

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  • Aurora Watch: monitoring geomagnetic activity in real-time