Project updates
Roberto Gotter

NFFA.EU: facts & figures

A review of the first 28 months of activities and 11 calls for proposal

Calls and proposals

Up to the end of 2018, the evaluation of 11 calls for proposals have been fully dealt with (with deadlines on 31 March 2016, 15 July 2016, 15 October 2016, 16 January 2017, 18 April 2017, 17 July 2017, 16 October 2017, 15 January 2018,18 April 2018, 16 July 2018 and 15 October 2018) with an average of 32 proposals per call (355 proposal submissions in total). All proposals from these calls were eligible except seven; other 2 were withdrawn. Roughly 90% of workable proposals have been deemed feasible and 74% of the feasible ones have been deemed scientifically apt yielding an overall 65% success rate, with about 21 approved proposals per call.

Proposals with one step and up to ten have been received, the average number of steps per proposal being three, with a wide distribution showing for instance 102, 53 and 25 proposals with 3, 4 and 5 steps, respectively.

From the overall 231 proposals approved to date, 151 have been concluded, the rest being in process or at the scheduling phase.



Taking into account the 11 calls resolved since the onset of NFFA the total number of users involved in requested proposals has been 976 (approx. 30% female), while 645 were the beneficiaries of the accepted proposals; a major fraction of them travelled to the providers’ premises. The average of users per proposal is of 2.8. In the second half of calls, we have had a higher involvement of ‘trained’ users resubmitting improved proposals (46) or submitting continuation projects (39). The ratio of new users vs old users is going to be stable, being in the last six calls around 1 to 1 indicating we have both satisfied users that want to repeat the NFFA experience and we are still luring new users into our system.



Adding up the 11 calls processed up to now, 44 countries have participated in NFFA: 21 EU member states (totalling 245 proposals), 8 Associated Countries (totalling 36 proposals) and 15 non-EU countries (totalling 74 proposals). The presence of non-EU or AC countries has increased greatly, from the early 15% to 25% (15% non-EU, 10% AC) of the proposals received, reinforcing the worldwide nature of NFFA. In terms of UoA (Unit of Access), the amount of them granted to non-EU represents 15% of the total granted in the first 11 calls, which is close to, but below, the maximum (20%) allotted for such countries.

Italy, Germany, France, UK and Spain have been the five countries requesting more proposals but their relative weight is decreasing from 53% of the requested proposals in the first half of calls, to 44% in the second half. India and Russia have been the most active non-EU countries, at a level very close SPAIN, for instance. It is proper to note that more than 80% of the proposals from India are asking access to Large Scale Facilities, while for Russia such a percentage is less than 25%. Although the difference of overall success rate between proposals led by non-EU countries and those led by EU/AC countries is diminishing during the second half period, such a differential is still above 20 points (46% vs 70%).


UoA and installations usage distribution

In terms of UoA requested up to now, the 355 received proposals amounted to a demand of 4735 UoA (4819 days-equivalent), out of those, 3072 UoA (3357 days-equivalent) were assigned after evaluation, yielding a 65% success rate.

With regard to the installations offer coverage, the UoA distribution analysis has been performed and shown in the next figure, taking into account the data of the 355 proposals received up to now.

nffa eu requested installation types

The Characterization block is the most demanded (51%) in these eleven calls, which is not surprising since those techniques account for 59% of the catalogue offer. In any case, taking into account the three fold splitting of the Characterization block (WP5), the six installations are more or less equally demanded, the only exceptions being Structural and Morphological characterization, which exceed the average, and Magnetic, Optical and Electric characterization, which is below it. It must be considered that the total UoA originally offered were not evenly distributed among the different installation types, but split as follows: Lithography (14%), Growth (18.5%), Theory (14.5%), SM Charact (30%), EC Charact (10%), ME Charact (13%).

When considering the assigned UoA after feasibility and scientific evaluation, the situation does not change much, with Theory & Simulation faring a bit better at the expense of the Characterization block.


Special cases: LSF

Out the 355 proposals received, 113 (32%) asked for LSF techniques. Out of those 113 proposals, 67 were approved. The corresponding success rate of 59% of LSF containing proposals is very similar to the one of all proposals (65%). The success rate and percentage of LSF proposals have increased in time, in accordance to the spirit of NFFA. In terms of UoA, 365 of the assigned UoA, 12%, corresponded to LSF techniques.


Special cases: industry interest

Out of the 355 proposals received 35 (10%) had an industrial imprint: were either submitted by SME (20) and large companies (2) or by PPPs (6) and academia users acting as an industry proxy (7). The approved proposals are 23 in total, i.e. a 66% success rate, comparable with the total success rate of all proposals. In terms of UoA, 400 were requested and 284 assigned, which both represent 9% of the total requested and assigned UoA. The success rate in industrial oriented UoA has been 71%, a little above the total average of the period (65%). The industry proposals tend to be leaner with an average 10-13 UoA per proposal (compared to the total average of 16-17). No approved proposal for SME made use of the two-techniques waiver lately introduced in this period; there was just one request but it was deemed not feasible.


Scientific distribution of proposals

The analysis of the scientific distribution of the proposals received is shown in the next figure.

NFFA EU Distribution of proposals

It must be taken with caution since the users were asked to declare which ERC sectors their proposal fitted better (several per proposal), and then they have been aggregated and assigned to the disciplines in the legend.

  • Mathematics: PE1 Mathematics foundations
  • Physics: PE2 Fundamental constituents of matter + PE3 Condensed matter physics
  • Chemistry: PE4 Physical and Analytical Chemical sciences
  • Materials Sciences: PE5 Materials and Synthesis
  • ICT: PE6 Computer science and informatics
  • Engineering and Technology: PE7 Systems and communication engineering + PE8 Products and process engineering
  • Life Sciences and Biotech: LS1 Molecular and Structural Biology and Biochemistry + LS3 Cellular and Developmental Biology + LS5 Neurosciences and neural disorders + LS6 Immunity and infection + LS7 Diagnostic tools, therapies and public health + LS9 - Applied life sciences and biotechnology
  • Other: PE9 - Universe sciences + PE10 Earth system science + SH3 Environment, Space and Population + SH6 Study of the Human Past

Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Material Science, Information and Communication Technology, Engineering & Technology, Universe, and Earth System Sciences (PE) were the most important of the domains covered. In particular, Condensed Matter Physics (PE3), Physical and Analytical Chemical Sciences (PE4) and Materials and Synthesis (PE5) covered nearly 83% of the requested proposals. On the other hand, the techniques offered by NFFA seem to better serve those purposes than life sciences ones. This may be the reason why only a few proposals in that domain were received: only 3.8% of the requested proposals were assigned to Life Sciences & Biotech (LS). As an anecdote, a few proposals were received in the Social Science and Humanities (SH) domain, namely in the subcategories of Environment, Space and Population (SH3) and Study of the Human Past (SH6), but none of them managed to go through the evaluation.


Results from user-projects

The materials systems that users were interested in encompassed different types of nano-objects or 2D materials, but also thin and thick films.

Low dimensional materials including quantum wells, nanoparticles, nanowires, nanorods, nanofibers(sometimes as load in composites):

  • Quantum wells, metal nanoparticles on metal oxide or PVA substrate/matrix, or laser induced periodic structures, polymeric nanoparticles, WC nanostructures, metal and semiconductor nanowires and core-shell nanowires, organic nanowires, nanorods, electro-spun nanofibers, nanocapsules, thin films, fluorescent carbon nanodots, Carbon-based porous nanostructures, etc.
  • 2D or extreme thin films: TiSe2 monolayers, GdAu2 monolayers, aromatic molecular monolayers, transition metal dichalcogenides, WS2, graphene, TaS2 2D films, nitride on graphene/SiC, Cu foils/grapheme, etc.
  • Other films and materials: Epitaxial growth of films, doped, nanopatterned or ion-implanted thin films, thin films of alloy/polymers, binary oxides, heterostructures; advanced photoresists; acetonitrile; bilayers heterostructures, self assembled layers of organic/organometal molecules, halide perovskites, perovskite thin film heterostructures, periodic structured fused silica, artificial spin ice, holmium magnetic impurities in MgO thin films, GaAs microcavities, Cu3Au alloys, Ti-based multilayers, stainless steel, silicon, olivine, metal multi-nanolayers, PVDF polymer, Copper oxide, PZT-cobalt ferrite, multilayers on silicon nitride membranes, permalloy, luminescent textiles, organic optoelectronic materials, conducting polymers, block co-polymers, diamond, doped metal oxides, transition-metal implanted zinc oxide single crystals, laser-induced periodic surface structures (LIPSS), , CVD grown graphen, liquid crystalline coatings, Pt(111) electrodes, nickel(I) tetraphenyl porphyrins arrays, hologram masks, etc.
  • Structural scaffolds-like materials: zeolitic-imidazolate frameworks (ZIF), Cu/C60, 3DTxFo (3D origami structures)
  • Biological material: neurite, biomimetic micronanostructured coatings, extracellular vesicles, DNA, hydrogels formed by mixtures of G/GMP with and without embedded proteins, lipid/DNA complexes.

As it can be seen there is a huge variety in material options, but it is worth mentioning a significant interest in novel photoresists materials for advanced lithography, perovskites and 2D materials follow. It must be said that only a fraction of those materials were synthesised at NFFA facilities: most of them were provided by the users themselves and then patterned, analysed and characterised at NFFA premises.

The applications these materials were investigated for were quite varied as well, from fundamental phenomena, energy related applications, advanced devices, processing and equipment:

  • Surface phenomena such as dealloying, water dissociation, and corrosion
  • Other phenomena as superconductivity and ferroelectricity, magnetism and vortex physics, magneto-optics, and photo and electro-catalysis
  • Disciplines as photonics, plasmonics, optoelectronics, spintronics, micro and nanoelectronics [both, devices (high frequency transistors, different types of resistive switching memories, power devices, oxide based resistive switching devices,  electrochemical and biochemical sensors, and nanomechanical devices) and processing (high resolution lithography: EUV, e-beam, Talbot lithography…)]; ultra-high density magnetic storage based on skyrmions was also considered
  • Other novel disciplines such as straintronics, oxide nanoelectronics, valleytronics, and topological quantum computation, post-synthetic chemical functionalization
  • In addition to lithography, another example on processing was 2D materials exfoliation
  • Other advanced devices: single photon avalanche diodes, LED, single atom magnets, true number random generator, microwave switches, single electron transport devices, IC device manufacturing, rare-earth based single-atom magnets.
  • Energy applications have been thoroughly addressed: photovoltaics (solar cells and absorbers), fuel cells, different type of ionic batteries, supercapacitors, thermoelectricity, quantum heat pump devices, piezoelectricity, microwawe power sources, and hydrogen storage, Na-ion battery technology, hydrogen fuel economy.
  • In terms of bio-applications activities addressed microfluidic devices, artificial muscles, drug delivery, tissue engineering, orthopedic implants, self-cleaning and antibacterial coatings, and glial cell culturing studies, molecular detection, tissue engineering, stimuli-responsive materials, and sensors, gene therapy applications, cancer treatment.
  • In the equipment arena, nanopatterned fixtures for TEM, X-ray microscopy/tomography, free electron lasers, THz detectors, and radiation dispersive spectrometers were realized.

As it can be seen, the applications range is quite varied. In any case, the more significant concentration of projects occurred in high-resolution lithography applications and photovoltaics applications.


User and provider satisfaction

In order to improve the submission and access procedures, the opinion of users and providers have been tracked with respect to different organizational issues as well as to the experiments performance.


Users are asked to fill in a satisfaction questionnaire after their access have been performed, they  are asked to rate aspects such as the web-based tools and single entry procedures for proposal making, as well as pre-access / during-access / post-access support, and technical reliability, among others.  The overall satisfactory answers are the common trend of NFFA users experience, the positive rates ranged from 98% to 100% depending on the issues, improving results of the first period (93%-100%). The majority of those positive answers rated their experience as excellent, from 71% to 97%. Some of the comments of the users regarding administrative issues were taken into account to improve the submission procedure.

Here follow a statistic summary of the satisfaction degree to the different aspects covered in the questionnaire:

  • 99% of the users thought that the submission guidelines in the website were satisfactory; 73% rated them as excellent
  • 98% of the users thought that the technical information (catalogue) in the website was satisfactory; 71% rated it as excellent
  • 97% of the users thought that the use of the Single Entry Point was satisfactory; 78% rated it as excellent
  • 98% of the users thought that the administrative assistance received for the organization of the access was satisfactory; 85% deemed it as excellent
  • 100% of the users thought that the technical support received before access was satisfactory; 93% deemed it as excellent
  • 100% of the users thought that the technical support received during access was satisfactory; 97% deemed it as excellent
  • 99% of the users thought that the operating conditions at the provider site during access were satisfactory; 91% deemed them as excellent
  • 99% of the users considered as satisfactory the overall evaluation of the experiment; 86% thought of it as excellent
  • 99% of the users considered that the after-experiment closure was satisfactory; 82% thought of it as being excellent


A questionnaire was also devised for the providers to have an inside satisfaction rating. A review of the answers collected so far points to the following facts with respect user-provider interaction:

  • most of the users (75%) contacted the providers in the course of the proposal preparation
  • virtually all users (93%) contacted the providers to prepare the access once granted
  • as a consequence, only in a few cases the providers found out during the access that the user objectives did not match providers expectations (3.5%) or samples were not totally appropriate (2.5%)
  • access scheduling was only problematic in 11% of the cases
  • timewise, the access period was deemed adequate in 80% of the cases.
  • due to the type of providers involved in NFFA and their way of operation, only 1% of the cases were pure hands-on access, 31% of the cases involved lab staff exclusively, and the users played some assistance role in 68% of them
  • effort wise, only in 14% of the cases the provider staff involvement was higher than expected
  • according to the providers the overall evaluation of all experiments was satisfactory in 98% of the cases; excellent in 67% of them. If only considering technological performance, 96% of the cases were rated as excellent.