Quest for novel quantum materials 'opens new chapter'

August 28, 2019 //By Rich Pell
Quest for novel quantum materials opens 'new chapter'
Researchers at the University of Rochester and collaborators say a $4 million grant from the Quantum Information Science Research for Fusion Energy Sciences (QIS) program within the Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Science will help them better understand and apply the quantum (subatomic) phenomena that cause materials to be transformed at pressures more than a million - even a billion - times the atmospheric pressure on Earth.

The three-year effort, say the researchers, will leverage world-class expertise and facilities, and open a new chapter of quantum matter exploration, with potential benefits including the following:

  • Superfast quantum computers immune to hacking
  • Cheap energy created from fusion and delivered over superconducting wires.
  • A more secure stockpile of nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
  • A better understanding of how planets and other astronomical bodies form – and even whether some might be habitable.

Until recently, say the researchers, many of the quantum behaviors and properties of subatomic particles could be observed only at extremely low, cryogenic temperatures. At low temperatures, the wave-like behavior causes electrons, put simply, "to overlap, become more social and talk more to their neighbors all while occupying discrete states." This quantum behavior allows them to transmit energy and can result in superconductive materials.

"The new realization is that you can achieve the same type of 'quantumness' of particles if you compress them really, really tightly," says Mohamed Zaghoo, a Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) scientist and project team member.

This can be achieved in various ways, from blasting the materials with powerful, picoseconds laser bursts to slowly compressing them for days, even months between super-hard industrial diamonds in nanoscale "anvils" (see image).

"Now you can say these materials can only exist under really high pressures, so to duplicate that under normal conditions is still a challenge," says Zaghoo. "But if we are able to understand why materials acquire these exotic behaviors at really high pressures, maybe we can tweak the parameters, and design materials that have these same quantum properties at both higher temperatures and lower pressures. We also hope to build a predictive theory about why and how certain kinds of elements can have these quantum properties and others don't."

For example, the common metal aluminum not only becomes transparent, but also loses its ability to conduct energy at extremely high pressure. If it happens to

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