The Tiniest Spaces Could Make the Biggest Impact

Designing the next generation of quantum materials is going to require an understanding of existing materials down to the atomic level.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

The properties of a solid material depend not only on the molecules that are in it, but also on their exact structure. The arrangement of molecules is so important that advancing the design of quantum materials requires the study of matter down to the atomic level, says George Sawatzky, professor of physics & astronomy at the University of British Columbia and Founder of the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute.

“I’m very much interested in developing ideas for new experimental methods to study materials and their atomic properties, on a length scale which is of the size of an atom, because that’s basically what we’re getting down to,” explains Sawatzky.

For instance, take graphite, the material found in pencil leads. If you tear graphite apart into sheets that are just one atom thick, you get graphene: a material that conducts electricity even better than copper. These are the types of quantum materials that could be the foundation of future devices.

In parallel with new methods and measurements, Sawatzky develops a theoretical understanding of what he observes. That’s the key to smart design of the next generation of materials.

“Those experimental techniques are not simple,” adds Sawatzky. “They require a very deep level of quantum mechanical understanding to relate what you’re seeing to what the actual properties of the material really are.”

That atomic-level understanding led to an important breakthrough in designing materials with new properties.

“I’m particularly excited about the idea of being able to measure the motion of electrons in a solid, deep below its surface — in other words, at an interface between two different materials,” says Sawatzky.

“The idea was that if you took two materials and put them together, that the interface itself could have a very different property than either of the two materials, and that interface region could only be very, very thin. And that has turned out to be correct.”

That opens up many opportunities for materials to have novel properties by assembling existing materials in new architectures. Nanostructured materials have potential for use as high temperature superconductors or other materials for advanced electronic devices.

The properties that can be achieved by designing new structures and combinations of materials may be surprising, and the results may even seem like alchemy without the understanding to back them up. By working on both sides of this research in tandem, researchers can accelerate the development of the next generation of quantum materials.

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

George Sawatzky is a physicist who is best known for his research in the area of solid state physics. He has made major contributions to our understanding of the electronic structure of nanostructured strongly correlated materials, including magnetic materials, high-temperature superconductors and materials for molecular electronics applications.

He pioneered the use of cluster diagonalization methods to describe the electronic structure of transition metal compounds as well as the spectroscopic results obtained from these compounds. His work has contributed to an improved understanding of widely used methods such as X-ray absorption, magnetic X-ray dichroism, Auger electron spectroscopy and various forms of resonant X-ray scattering.
George has been a member of many prestigious advisory committees, including the Science Advisory Committee of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. He has received a huge number of awards and honours, including the 2007 Henry Marshall Tory Medal of the Royal Society of Canada.

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.