What Happens at This Level is Really, Really Cool

Near absolute zero, researchers can explore nanostructures... and with collaboration and new equipment come fascinating insights.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Experimental physicists Douglas Bonn and Sarah Burke are interested in the fascinating properties of materials that emerge at low temperatures. At temperatures close to absolute zero, nearly all molecular motion ceases, and that level of stability allows them to probe nanostructures.

Both Bonn and Burke are researchers at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute at the University of British Columbia, and that affiliation fosters collaborations that let them delve deeper than they could on their own.

“My research work uses a family of techniques called scanning probe microscopy, which allow us to see surfaces, atoms, and molecules at the atomic and molecular scale,” says Burke.

The beauty of working with a family of techniques is that each one sheds light on different parts of the problem. If there are features that one technique can’t resolve, then another can fill in some of the gaps.

Bonn and Burke are commissioning a new instrument, funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, and it will bring together two of these techniques. Scanning tunneling microscopy will allow them to see the individual positions of electrons on the surface of a material. Paired with angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy, they will also be able to see how electrons move through a material.

“Bringing these two pictures together is really powerful because being able to put the same sample in one machine with both techniques available allows us to resolve what parts of the measurements that each technique can’t see,” adds Burke.

This instrument will help them understand when combining many elements into complex mixtures. There is a lot of disorder in mixtures like these, and understanding their behaviour will require techniques that can probe for information at the atomic level.

“We’re mixing two, three, four, five elements in the periodic table into some complicated crystal structure,” says Bonn. “There’s a lot of different things you have to figure out in order to understand that problem.”

“There’s a lot of problems in science today that benefit from collaboration,” adds Burke. “Part of that is the materials challenges that we’re facing require making new materials and the understanding is constantly developing.

“Nobody’s going to be an expert in five different techniques that are at the leading edge. In order to really apply all of these great new tools that we have to every materials problem that we have, we have to work with each other.”

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