Hendrik Utzat: Pushing the limits of light

Image of photon Illustration of how light interacts with molecular structures

by Sarah C.P. Williams

Every second, a typical 60-watt, incandescent light bulb emits about one hundred quintillion photons, the basic units of light. Assistant professor Hendrik Utzat, PhD, who joined the College of Chemistry in July 2022, studies how to generate, manipulate and measure just one of those photons at a time. His research sits at the intersection of nanophotonics with materials science, and optical spectroscopy. 

“The overarching thread of my research is the study of the interaction of photons with small-scale structures,” says Utzat. “There are many different contexts for this interaction, but the underlying physics and the instruments we use to probe the interactions are the same.”

Utzat came to Berkeley from a postdoctoral research fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied optical cavities, which use miniscule mirrors to control the trajectories and behavior of photons. 

Photo Keegan Houser

Creativity meets mathematics

Utzat spent his childhood in Essen,  Germany— a small, former coal-and-steel-city that he likes to compare to Pittsburgh.  Growing up, he always liked math, and  knew he wanted to study something that  relied heavily on numbers. As an under-
graduate at RWTH Aachen University — a few hours away from Essen on the German border with the Netherlands and
Belgium— he found himself deciding between economics and chemistry. He chose chemistry. 

“To me, chemistry is the perfect match between being both intuitive and quantitative,” says Utzat. “You can use your creativity to come up with ideas about how things work, and then you have to back up those ideas with calculations.”

During his time at RWTH Aachen, Utzat worked as an undergraduate research assistant— first studying nanoscience and then spectroscopy. He became fascinated with spectroscopic methods that used light to probe matter, as well as new nanomaterials that interacted with light in unusual ways. 

“I learned about  the symbiotic feedback loop between materials development and advanced optical characterization,” he says.
“That idea has driven my research ever since.”

One Photon at a Time

After a brief stint at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, where he got a Master’s degree in chemistry, Utzat began his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the lab of Moungi Bawendi. 

Utzat became especially interested in tiny, nanoscale semiconductor structures that researchers were designing to emit a single photon at a time. These structures, he says, are like the world’s tiniest light bulbs. Like light-emitting diodes (LEDs), they likely have a plethora of applications.

“One of the interesting things about these materials is that if you have a communication line that relies on single photons, there’s no way it can be intercepted because you can’t split a single photon into two,” says Utzat. “But it’s also the kind of technology that, if it eventually works, can lead to all kinds of other applications that we can’t even imagine right now.”

One of the challenges in developing single-photon emitters was that there weren’t accurate methods to characterize new materials. So Utzat’s graduate research focused on the development of a new, highly accurate spectroscopic technique to resolve miniscule fluctuations in the emission color of individual photons. When this research was coupled with new materials design, it led to Utzat and his colleagues developing the first chemically-made semiconductor nanocrystal with a high optical brilliance— research published in the journal of Science and useful in quantum optics. 

Moving West Again

“I like to joke that with each new step of my career, I’ve successively traveled west,” says Utzat.

Indeed, after Germany, Switzerland and Boston, he flew west to Stanford University for a post-doctoral fellowship with Jennifer Dionne, one of the leading figures in the field of nanophotonics. At Stanford, Utzat began to study how single-photon emitters could be integrated into larger structures. 

“Normally, light from a single photon emitter is emitted in all directions, like a light bulb,” he explains. “But if you put the emitter within an optical cavity, you have a way to control the direction.”

Understanding how light interacts with these optical nano-cavities, Utzat says, has implications beyond single photon emitters. Recent studies have suggested, for instance, that materials in optical cavities could be used in high-efficiency solar cells. 

Driven by Fundamental Questions

In his lab at Berkeley, Utzat is still working toward the development of both nanoscale optical materials and optical spectroscopy methods to study those materials. While he is driven by fundamental questions about the behavior of light, his research has implications in other areas including the development of quantum systems that emit single photons. In particular, his lab focuses on how to leverage new detection technologies— and develop new technical tools, measurement techniques, and statistical algorithms— to further this field. 

But Utzat is also taking his technology in a new direction. The same spectroscopic techniques and measurement paradigms used to probe single emitters can also be used to study the structures of biological molecules— like individual proteins— in a more sensitive way than existing biological imaging approaches. 

“The new single photon detectors we have access to are exceptionally sensitive and have an exceedingly high signal to noise ratio,” says Utzat. “They’re about four orders of magnitude better than conventional single-photon detectors.”

That means scientists can use the detectors to determine exactly how light is bouncing off and interacting with a protein. In turn, that lets them elucidate its precise structure, he proposes. This technology, Utzat says, represents a promising step toward precise, single-protein imaging. 

“My work with single-photon emitters and my work with ultra-sensitive biological imaging is driven by this motivation to understand, at a very fundamental level, how light interacts with nanoscale matter and how we can control that interaction through new optical techniques and new materials design,” says Utzat. 

Once Utzat’s lab is fully up and running, he looks forward to launching collaborations with Berkeley chemists and biologists to apply his knowledge and approaches to
a diverse range of applications— from
biology to quantum physics, and beyond.

“One of the reasons I chose to come to Berkeley was that it’s easy to find inspiring, open-minded collaborators across all these disciplines,” says Utzat.