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WVU researcher works to fast-track traditional research methods for quantum discoveries

Two men look a machinery when working on an experiment

Quantum materials are created one atomic layer at a time in a series of vacuum chambers, as overseen by WVU graduate student Joseph Benigno (left) and postdoctoral research associate Pedram Tavazohi. (WVU Photo)

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Decades-long searches for new quantum materials may now take much less time, according to a West Virginia University researcher who is speeding up the tedious process.

Finding and creating new materials with unique properties, like superconductors and novel magnets, requires new methods and tools, but Lian Li, Robert L. Carroll Professor of Physics at the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, said the trial and error method employed by scientists takes too long to keep up with technology in the quantum age.

“For over 100 years, the approach has always been to try, and if something doesn’t work, try again,” Li said. “The story goes that when Edison discovered the filaments for his light bulb, he tried 1,600 different materials to make more than 6,000 filaments. Clearly, it’s time consuming.”

Li’s four-year project to accelerate the discovery process is supported by a $980,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future program, a program responsive to the Materials Genome Initiative launched in 2011. The multi-agency MGI is designed to support U.S. institutions in the effort to discover, manufacture and deploy advanced materials twice as fast, at a fraction of the cost. The program’s goal is to streamline the discovery and design of new quantum materials with properties like enhanced conductivity, durability and strength using computational and experimental tools and a data-driven approach.

Quantum materials’ unique properties come from the spinning movement of electrons. For example, superconductors have infinite conductivity, and magnets can be controlled with electric current because of how their electrons spin. Li and his research team will employ pseudospin — a quantum analog of electron spin — to help discover new materials, which will be created by growing one atomic layer at a time in a series of stainless steel vacuum chambers.

“We aim to harness this new pseudospin to design materials with new properties,” Li said.

The WVU team, which includes graduate student Joseph Benigno and postdoctoral research associate Pedram Tavazohi, is working on the project with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“The theorists are there,” Li said. “Here, we are responsible for actually creating these materials. They make predictions up there, and then we'll take those predictions and perform targeted experiments to ensure that we can make the quantum materials to validate the theory prediction. This iterative closed-loop MGI approach will speed up materials discovery.”

Beningo likened the process of materials synthesis to the precision required for baking.

“It's not like cooking, where you can mix some things up a little bit. For baking, you have to be very accurate.” He said varying the “ingredients” and the procedures that go into the recipe for a new quantum material will produce different finished products, some of which will be desirable, while others will not.

“The conductivity will be different, or the structure or the symmetry,” Li said. “We ask, ‘Does it look like the shape I want? Does it have the right color?’ That's why we call this materials discovery.”

Beyond the laboratory, Li’s research, buoyed by this accelerated timeline, may prove useful in real-world applications.

“Ultimately the goal is to build materials that allow us to do things like quantum computing,” he said. “Another one is superconductors, which transfer electricity without resistance. A real-world application for superconductors is high-speed trains.” Traditional train tracks produce a lot of resistance, but superconducting magnets float the train above the track and allow for significantly faster speeds.

“Right now, the speed is around 220 miles per hour,” Li said. “It could reach over 600 miles per hour.” He added the problem with superconductors is they only work at a low temperature, but with the technology to develop new materials, the goal of a room temperature superconductor may be within reach.

Li’s team will also teach the next generation of scientists about these advanced materials and methods. This will include undergraduates as well as outreach to high school students. The team plans to organize an MGI day during the annual WVU Research Week and a biannual two-day MGI Summit of Students, Teachers and Researchers. STARs will feature lab open houses, presentations and tutorials highlighting the MGI approach for quantum materials design, development and deployment. Together, these programs encourage students to take the leap to quantum science and technology at a relatively early age. It’s Li’s hope that this leap will, in turn, further research developments.

“Every era in human history is characterized by the kind of materials we use, from stone to silicone,” he said. “And now we’re going into the quantum age, and the speed of discovery is really fast. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do it two or five or 10 times faster.”



MEDIA CONTACT: Laura Roberts

Research Writer

WVU Research Communications


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