Fundamental research

Fundamental research

Fundamental research

In support of its other missions, the CEA is also actively involved in the fields of biotechnology & health, physical & earth sciences, physics and nanoscience. These research activities are managed by the CEA’s Fundamental Research Division (DRF).

More information on the DRF

In a two-way dynamic which involves posing questions and then providing answers to key societal issues, the multi-disciplinary research teams with strong engineering backgrounds at the DRF ensure continuity between fundamental discoveries and their transition towards applications.»

Fondamental research


The annual number of publications in scientific reviews

The CEA is committed to ensuring fundamental research of the highest level in close collaboration with the both the French and international scientific academia. It has built up a very large bank of knowledge and know-how that is driving progress in research and helping the CEA fulfil its missions for the greater benefit of society.

Since its inception, the CEA has been excelling in fundamental research in its core fields, i.e. physics, chemistry and biology. The Fundamental Research Division (DRF) covers most of the activities in fundamental research. Its teams are behind the development of a broad range of world-class tools and knowledge bases. They are also called to operate large research facilities at the service of the entire scientific community. These scientists and researchers contribute to the scientific and technical outreach of France. Their results are fed back into other CEA activities, thereby ensuring the preservation of skills needed to carry out such activities.

Five areas of expertise

The CEA covers five key fields in physical and life sciences:

  • Fundamental laws of the universe and the quantum world
    The CEA’s fundamental research teams are working on going beyond the Standard Model describing three of the four known fundamental forces in the universe. They are also actively in a new kind of physics around dark matter and energy and are engaged in quantum physics, which continues to develop in all directions, whether fundamental or through applications.

  • New materials and states of matter
    Reflecting the “design, manufacture and understand” motto, the CEA is investigating systems with new properties and conducting research on complex matter and its imbalance, as well as turbulence phenomena.

  • Environment and climate change 
    Teams at the CEA are tasked with: i) studying the evolution of natural climate mechanisms - both past and present - to better understand their behaviour, ii) observing the physical and chemical conditions of today from the ground and space so as to monitor planetary changes and their impact on earth, and iii) simulating environmental and climate changes.

  • Life science mechanisms
    The CEA characterises living organisms on all the different space and time scales using a multidisciplinary approach that integrates biological parameters. This approach means that pathological changes associated with cancers and diseases (infectious, immunological and neurodegenerative) can be studied from a closer angle, while making it possible to better measure the impact of environmental changes on biodiversity.

  • Brain structure and neural coding
    The CEA boasts a unique set of cutting-edge instruments in this field, ranging from the most powerful MRI machine for human imaging in the world to its three-photon microscope, not to mention its electric and magnetic sensors, or its data storage, processing & analysis methods using artificial intelligence.

Research to support major societal transformations

Based on an interdisciplinary approach that combines science and technology, fundamental research at the CEA is called to address some key issues arising due to our ever-evolving societies.

This is why the CEA decided to invest in quantum technologies at the very start of the digital, economy by first focusing on innovative devices and then rapidly incorporating studies on information theory. This long-standing collaboration between divisions has enabled the CEA, today, to manage the ‘quantum plan’ jointly with the CNRS and Inria, which was presented by the French President in January 2021.

In the energy, sector, the CEA is heavily invested in developing new energy technologies (testing innovative materials, etc.), as well as technologies and processes designed to reduce or optimise greenhouse gas emissions (circular carbon economy, fuel cells, biofuels, etc.). Its work also covers nuclear physics, nuclear fusion and climate change.

The CEA is also dedicated to supporting the health, sector; it develops technologies to revolutionise the future of medicine, with benefits in the fields of digital health, bio-component devices, health care pathways, and the organisation of hospitals of the future.

Finally yet importantly, the DRF is called to work on defence issues through the R&D interministerial programme called NRBC-E, as well as being involved in research on antibiotic resistance, and on information & communications technologies.

Research founded on cooperation

Reflecting this question-and-response approach to the fundamental issues of society, the multi-disciplinary teams at the DRF ensure there is continuity between discoveries and applications thanks to their strong engineering background. The DRF also maintains close ties with academia (other research organisations through mixed-staff teams and partnerships with the main research universities) and interfaces with the innovation ecosystem through its exchanges with the industry.

The CEA’s fundamental research programmes do not neglect the importance of publishing information, training and building strong research universities. Its role also includes acting as an advisor to the public authorities and society in general, meeting the demands of the French government, providing support in resolving any sovereign issues, and interacting with businesses and the economy in France and abroad. Through remarkable progress made in areas that concern us all, such as climate change, the Universe, health and the human brain, the DRF is contributing to the CEA’s overall level of excellence while driving science forward.

Fundamental research

Key events 2020

Notre-Dame de Paris fire and its impact on the level of lead pollution in the Paris region

Notre-Dame de Paris fire and its impact on the level of lead pollution in the Paris region

— Using the isotopic signatures of lead, the Metal working group (including researchers from the LSCE) on the Notre-Dame de Paris worksite was able to show that the cathedral fire released lead into the atmosphere, provoking a peak in the lead air pollution that exceeded the usual levels by up to 100. Prior to the fire, the lead contained in the roof cladding and spire of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral - estimated to represent about 450 tonnes - was already a known source of pollution, mainly through rainwater erosion. The roofing and balcony seals also contribute to this lead pollution. Depending on the place and temperature reached on the night of the fire, the lead roof cladding either melted or evaporated in aerosol form. Though the fire had an immediate yet short-term impact on the air quality near the smoke plume, there does not appear to be a more widespread long-term environmental impact at this stage. The clean-up process is still ongoing, particularly with respect to sediment deposits along the River Seine and dust accumulated in Parisian habitats.

> For more information

LSCE: Laboratory for climate and environmental sciences (CEA/CNRS/UVSQ)

Progressive commissioning of Spiral2
Major research facilities

Progressive commissioning of Spiral2

Throughout 2020, the French large heavy-ion accelerator (GANIL) research centre successfully continued its commissioning of the Spiral2, a second-generation online radioactive ion generation system. This facility will enhance its range of tools used to investigate the physics of nuclei, atoms and condensed matter, as well as astrophysics and radiobiology. In late November 2020, the proton beams of the new superconducting linear accelerator (Linac) for Spiral2 reached 10% of their maximum power with extremely low beam losses. The Neutrons For Sciences (NFS) facility generated its first neutrons by provoking interactions between Linac protons and thin targets made of lithium and beryllium. The first experiments are programmed to start in autumn 2021.

Focus on the Ganil research centre

Focus on the Ganil research centre

Commissioned in 1983 in Caen, the French large heavy-ion accelerator (GANIL) is a major research platform jointly run by the CNRS and the CEA through an economic interesting grouping. The facility is equipped with ion sources and cyclotrons used to accelerate ion beams, not to mention experimental halls with unique test devices that have been developed to meet the needs of the greater scientific community. The research carried out at the Ganil has led to some key breakthroughs in nuclear physics over the years.

> For more information

Examining nanometre-size objects using attosecond time-resolution
New materials and states of matter

Examining nanometre-size objects using attosecond time-resolution

— ​Scientists at the Iramis Institute and the synchrotron Soleil facility showed that it was possible to produce an image of a nanometre-size object with a time-resolution of an attoseconde. Thanks to ‘lensless’ imaging which overcomes the limits of conventional optical systems, the object can be observed under a spatially stable light source with a short wavelength. The resulting diffraction patterns can then be processed by algorithms to reconstruct a high-resolution image. The 3D structure of viruses and protein complexes - resistant to crystallisation - could thus be observed using new-generation X-ray or extreme UV rays. This novel tool also opens the door to new research on solid physics for electronics of the future, such as petahertz optoelectronics within the scope of the European PETACom project.

Iramis Institute Saclay Institute of Matter and Radiation (CEA/CNRS/Ecole Polytechnique/Ensicaen)
Soleil Synchrotron facility Built on the Saclay centre, the Soleil Synchrotron is a very large research facility managed within the scope of a French civil-law partnership between the CNRS and the CEA, in collaboration with the Ile-de-France region, the Essone departmental council and the Centre Val-de-Loire region.
Attoseconde: An attosecond is equal to 1.10-18 seconds

The ice-core drilling site chosen for the Beyond Epica project
Environment and climate change

The ice-core drilling site chosen for the Beyond Epica project

— ​The European project called Beyond Epica, which includes the CEA’s LSCE laboratory, recently chose its site for ice-core drilling in Antarctica. The results will be used to trace climate changes back as far as 1.5 million years. Preliminary analysis of a 120-metre core sample has confirmed the full potential of these studies. The previous Epica drilling site in Antarctica near the Concordia station has already allowed paleoclimatologists to rebuild an image of the climate over a period of about 800,000 years. They are now looking to understand why the glacial-interglacial cycle jumped from 41,000 years to 100,000 years without any apparent cause about one million years ago (between 1.2 million and 900,000 years). Could the CO2 level be responsible? They hope the next deep ice-core sample will provide some answers as they expect to be able to trace to 1.5 million years.

Epica : European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica
LSCE : Laboratory for climate and environmental sciences (CEA/CNRS/UVSQ)

Cell mechanics - a decidedly surprising field!
Life science mechanisms

Cell mechanics - a decidedly surprising field!

— On a microscopic level, the cytoskeleton (the internal structure) is composed of specialist proteins that make sure the cellular forces are developed within the cell and transferred to their environment. Though it is widely accepted that these cell structures help develop forces on a molecular scale, the actual mechanism developing and distributing these forces in the cell via the cytoskeleton is still unknown. By using different investigative techniques, scientists at the Irig have been successful in characterising the development of these cellular forces. There were a few surprises along the way, such as discovering that mechanical integrity inside the cell behaves like a single, entirely connected object even though it is composed of a multitude of small filaments.

> For more information

Irig: Interdisciplinary Research Institute of Grenoble (CEA/ Grenoble-Alpes University)

‘Mini-brains’ (cerebral organoids) used to model frontal lobe dementia
Brain structure and neural coding

‘Mini-brains’ (cerebral organoids) used to model frontal lobe dementia

— Researchers at the Jacob Institute have developed a genetic tool to model the long-term gene expression of proteins in human cerebral organoids. These mini-brains can be described as millimetre-sized neural assemblages grown from stem cells capable of differentiation, which can be harnessed to produce brain structures used to study, amongst others, cellular behaviour in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. The final objective is to investigate a genetic form of frontal lobe dementia associated with a mutation of the gene encoding tau protein, which accumulates to form toxic inclusions causing the neurones to degenerate. This taupathy is considered relevant for investigation because it resembles that found in Alzheimer’s disease.

Jacob Institute: François Jacob Institute of Biology at the CEA