Paul Canfield earns prestigious Humboldt Award to conduct research in Germany

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As a physicist, Paul Canfield sometimes goes “hunting for the phoenix” – a mythical bird with a life that spans centuries, of which at the end it ignites and burns to ashes so a new, young phoenix will arise.

In Canfield’s world, the phoenix is in the form of magnetic properties.


“If you can suppress magnetism ‘in the right way,’” he said, “new properties rise from the ashes.”

Specifically, he’s talking about suppressing fragile magnetism. He’s looking for compounds with magnetic states that can be adjusted to create new states when fragile states are suppressed. It’s an ambitious project he’ll be collaborating on in Germany this year, thanks to his prestigious Humboldt Research Award.

Canfield is a Distinguished Professor and the Robert Allen Wright Professor of Physics and Astronomy. He is a senior physicist at the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory. The Humboldt Research Award is granted in recognition of a researcher’s entire achievements to date – fundamental discoveries, new theories, insights that have had significant impact on their discipline. And researchers who earn the award show no signs of stopping: they are selected because they are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future, in addition to their already deep pool of work.

The project spins off of the time Canfield has spent in Europe over the past 15 years. In addition to a sabbatical time spent in France, Spain, Germany and England, he has spent more than a decade collaborating with notable scientists across the pond to conduct research with life-changing results. Professor Maria-Roser Valenti of The University of Frankfurt, a colleague of Canfield’s, nominated him. Professor Claudia Felser, a chemist and the Director of Inorganic Chemistry at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden (similar to the Ames Lab), completed Canfield’s nomination.

“With Roser, I am involved in an ambitious project where I’m hoping we can cycle back and forth between basic synthesis and basic computation of fragile magnets,” he said.

“I’ll create a set of potential compounds. Roser will then perturb them, and we’ll watch if the properties change a lot, or a little. In this way, we are trying to identify possible fragile magnets. The ones that change a lot will then be made and studied in more detail, testing Roser’s predictions and, hopefully, providing new phoenix spotting territories.”

“This is a very prestigious award, and we are very proud that one of our best LAS faculty members has received it,” said Dean Beate Schmittmann. “Professor Canfield is internationally known for designing and discovering new materials with unusual properties. His discoveries probe and extend what we know about the quantum physics of materials, and they are important for the development of new technologies in healthcare, energy generation, and national security, to name just a few applications.”

Every year, top researchers from all academic disciplines and all nationalities are nominated for Humboldt Research Awards. Only a few are selected. Costas Soukoulis, a senior scientist at the Ames Lab and a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, earned the award in 2002.

‘‘With another Humboldt Research Award bestowed on researchers of our department, it is a pleasure to see the national and international recognition of our research effort grow,’’ Frank Krennrich, professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University.

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Contacts: Paul Canfield, Physics and Astronomy ( Jess Guess, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications (