“We talk about it being the dawn of the Age of Quantum Materials, so we make this analogy with the Stone Age or the Bronze Age. And we say that we’ve recently emerged from the Silicon Age, where so much of our computer technology has relied on our ability to make pure silicon chips.”
Physicist Alannah Hallas believes we are at a tipping point in human history where the way we live is about to be redefined by the materials we master.
“The next age will be the Age of the Quantum Material,” adds Hallas. “There’s tremendous promise that they could unlock all sorts of technologies, things that don’t exist yet.”
Hallas is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia and researcher at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute. And she’s on a mission to build a lab with the most advanced, state-of-the-art equipment to help her team build materials that start out purely as ideas.
The Quantum Materials Design Lab will house a comprehensive suite of tools that will help Hallas push the limits of material design. Taking theoretical models and brainstorming interesting new physical states, she strives to understand the essential ingredients that would give a material those properties. From there, she actually sets out to build them, arranging chemical elements onto a chemical lattice in the lab.
And sometimes, even the unexpected results turn into discoveries.
“We’re kind of looking for the unknown unknowns most of the time,” says Hallas. “A lot of times, in fact, you end up growing a material that you weren’t expecting to grow. You went in hoping to make something, and you got out something else. And since you have it, you’re definitely going to measure it. And that’s how we discover a lot of the new things.”
“All the time in physics, we discover these beautiful, emerging properties just through complete serendipity,” adds graduate student Graham Johnstone. “And it can happen to anyone.”
Each day is a new opportunity to try something new in the lab, based on nothing more than a thought. And it could turn out to be something that inspires a new field and the next generation, says Johnstone.
“I want to have a lab where we can be relatively unconstrained in what we try to grow,” says Hallas. “And that means having capabilities that are at the boundaries of what’s possible.”