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Designing Quantum Materials for Transformational Technologies

November 24, 2021

Reading this sentence on a screen may not take very long, but the technology that made it possible took decades of scientific discovery and creative thinking. From the first transistor to supercomputers that can perform 200,000 trillion calculations per second, science and engineering have made giant strides in developing tools that make our lives safer, healthier, and easier. Advances in materials enabled this progress. For example, modern computing would not be possible without semiconductors. Similarly, future revolutions in science, engineering, and technology will be driven by advances in quantum materials. Associate Professor Steve Johnston sees the origins of such enormous gains at the microscopic level. Capitalizing on UT’s multidisciplinary expertise, his plan uses artificial intelligence to predict how quantum materials behave and won $3 million in support from the US Department of Energy Office of Science.

What’s So Great about Quantum?

Classical physics describes our everyday experience. If you drop a baseball from the roof of the Nielsen Physics Building, it’s a sure bet it will fall to the sidewalk below. Predictions like this don’t hold up at the microscopic level, where quantum mechanics are in play. Here, atoms and their smaller constituents can behave in ways that defy classical expectations. Electrons, for example, typically repel one another. Yet in correlated quantum materials they react so strongly with each other that their properties can become strongly coupled and entangled. This leads to phenomena like high-temperature superconductivity, which, as Johnston explained, “emerges from a sea of strongly interacting electrons.”

Understanding the behavior of such strongly interacting systems is a grand challenge of modern science. However, quantum materials have potential well beyond scientific curiosity. Consider graphene. While it’s only a single atom thick (and 100 million atoms would fit, side by side, in a centimeter), graphene is 200 times stronger than steel, and electrons move through it 100 times faster than they do through silicon.

The surprising phenomena that emerge in quantum materials have the potential to transform billion-dollar industries ranging from consumer electronics, classical and quantum computing, medicine, and energy production, storage, and transmission. Johnston sees these novel properties as a path to revolutionize technology. Designing those materials, however, requires solving some complex problems.