Building a Breakthrough, Atom by Atom

One professor's dream of creating new superconductors, one atom at a time, could fuel big advances in transportation and medicine.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

For 20 years, Jenny Hoffman built powerful microscopes, taking beautiful pictures of electrons and atoms. But as amazing as those images were, she felt there was something missing by being simply an observer of existing materials. Then several years ago, she changed her research path. She began to create and manipulate new materials.

Hoffman, professor of physics at Harvard University and associate fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is particularly interested in superconductors: materials that can carry electricity without losing energy. To date, existing superconductors only work at very low temperatures. Hoffman wants to improve on them by creating a superconductor that could work at room temperature.

A room temperature superconductor could cut energy losses in getting electricity from the power plant to devices. It would also expel a magnetic field, making it useful in levitating magnetic trains or in medical applications such as MRI imaging.

While many researchers are working on superconductors, Hoffman is studying layered combinations of materials to create unique properties. Her materials are like the sandwiched pages of a book: two dimensional flat surfaces that take on new qualities at the interfaces where they meet. The combinations can have properties that are distinct from those of either starting material, says Hoffman.

Hoffman’s goal is to build a machine that could build custom materials atom by atom, giving better flexibility and precision to create complex combinations that could have superconducting properties. She is already building machines that can make a single layer of atoms, and then scan over them with a sharp tip to capture information about them. This tip is so sharp that it is a single atom, and it can also pick up and move other atoms around the surface of the sheet. Expanding this to printing in three dimensions would enable her to print complex materials from the ground up.

“That’s the dream and every bit of it is achievable,” says Hoffman, “but it’s going to require a huge amount of work.”


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Jenny Hoffman is a professor at Harvard University. She earned her Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2003, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford before joining the Harvard faculty in 2005. Professor Hoffman’s experimental research is motivated by the idea that layer-by-layer growth and nanoscale imaging of materials can uncover new physics and applications that are inaccessible via bulk synthesis and probes. Her laboratory combines molecular beam epitaxy and scanning probe microscopy to image and manipulate the electronic and magnetic properties of quantum materials. Dr. Hoffman has been named a 2006 PECASE Fellow, a 2008 NSF Career Fellow, a 2010 Sloan Research Fellow, a 2013 Radcliffe Fellow, a 2014 Moore Foundation Experimental Investigator, and a 2015 Canada Excellence Research Chair. She is also the mother of 3 young children, and 2-time winner of the U.S.A. Track & Field National Championship 24 Hour Run (running over 222 kilometres in 24 hours in September 2015).

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