Quantum materials display unusual properties at the atomic and subatomic scale that, if properly engineered, could lead to new classes of devices and computing capabilities that far exceed the capabilities of existing technology.
Take, for example, manipulating how light and matter interact with each other in silicon carbide. Silicon carbide, a hard, refractory crystalline compound, is widely used in modern electronics. A new X-ray technique developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory may help scientists learn more about its nanoscale properties.
“The most exciting thing to me about this entire field is that we don’t actually know where the biggest impact is going to be.” – David Awschalom, Argonne senior scientist and Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago
The technique focuses a pulsed X-ray beam to a diameter of only 25 nanometers (3,000 to 4,000 times narrower than a human hair), allowing researchers to observe what happens when they create and manipulate an atomic defect within the silicon carbide crystal lattice. This action forces the surrounding atoms to rearrange themselves, which strains the material.
“When you strain these materials, many of their electronic and quantum state properties change,” said David Awschalom, an Argonne senior scientist and Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. But until a new tool was developed for the hard X-ray nanoprobe in collaboration with Martin Holt at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials, no one could actually observe the process as it unfolded.
(Awschalom, Holt and others also used Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source and worked with researchers in Argonne’s Materials Science division and the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering to develop the tool.)
Silicon carbide lends itself to the production of quantum devices that could, for example, transmit secure communications across existing optical fiber networks. But the full extent of its technological potential remains unknown.
This is but one example of multiple laboratory initiatives aimed at enhancing the impact of future breakthroughs in quantum computing, sensing and communications. To do so, Awschalom and his Argonne colleagues are pushing back the scientific frontiers of quantum mechanics, which governs the behavior of matter at the atomic and subatomic world that contrasts with the physics of everyday life in bizarre and counterintuitive ways.
Argonne researchers have long been interested in developing quantum technologies. Paul Benioff, who proposed his pioneering theoretical framework for a quantum computer in the early 1980s, was among the earliest to consider it.
Building upon this legacy, the laboratory has recently redoubled its quantum research efforts. The laboratory’s goal is to better understand and develop technologies based on this nascent field. Argonne is well positioned to contribute to the proposed National Quantum Initiative, which is receiving bipartisan Congressional support, said Supratik Guha, the laboratory’s senior science advisor and director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials.