Keeping it cool in the face of progress

Leading physicist, Deborah Jin, is making waves in the scientific community for her studies in the area of superconductivity and its impact on energy transmission and electronics. A team of MIT researchers has also published discoveries that could transform superconductors and electronic devices beyond our wildest imagination.

Quantum physics conjures images of Star Trek and people being teleported at the push of a button in true ‘beam me up scotty style.’ While this has yet to be achieved here on earth, leading scientists are applying quantum physics to advance technology in a number of different ways, including the advancement of superconductivity, which could ultimately improve energy transmission and power lines, as well as electronic devices. It is also helping to solve mysteries that could lead to the transformation of our current computing systems.

The phenomenon of superconductivity/superfluidity has fascinated and occupied physicists since the beginning of the 20th century – with major discoveries made along the way. In a couple of years, life as we know it will have changed dramatically, thanks to continued breakthroughs in this area of science.

Can’t keep her out in the cold

Deborah Jin, National Institutes of Standards and Technology physicist, and physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder (U.C.B.), is a leader in the field of quantum mechanics and is renowned for her work in improving our understanding of superconductivity.

To simplify - superconductors are materials in which all resistance to an electrical current disappears at temperatures ranging from near absolute zero to as "warm" as around –170 degrees Fahrenheit (–112 degrees Celsius). Yet, the ability of electrons to pass through superconducting material unobstructed has puzzled scientists for many years. The warmer a substance is the more it vibrates. Conversely, the colder a substance is the less it vibrates.

In order to develop robust practical, room-temperature superconductors – which would be a major scientific breakthrough - a better understanding of the quantum mechanical properties of their far colder cousins is needed. And this is where Jin steps in.

Tell me about it, Einstein

Back in the 1990s, Jin’s work, along with graduate student Brian DeMarco, led to a major scientific breakthrough. The pair used lasers and magnetic traps to “cool” a vapour of fermions – (in physics, all matter is classified as either fermions or bosons; electrons, protons, and neutrons are all fermions) to a temperature less than a millionth of a degree above absolute zero - becoming the first to create a new quantum gas in which atoms behave like waves.

This in turn led Jin to study further the BCS-BEC (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer—Bose-Einstein condensate) crossover, bringing with it fresh new insights. "We've been working on ways to probe the Fermi superfluid state. The nice thing about these ultra-cold Fermi gases is that we can manipulate them, we can make them strongly interacting and we can make them superfluid. This is physics that is also being studied theoretically, in the context of condensed matter physics and superconductors," says Jin.

Jin has upped the ante by super chilling molecules, rather than single atoms. "It's much harder to cool molecules than atoms," she explains.

Jin and fellow U.C.B. physicist, Jun Ye, recently succeeded in making a gas of ultra cold polar molecules of potassium and rubidium near the temperature of the quantum regime where Jin previously observed a fermionic condensate.

“Polar molecules, as their name implies, have oppositely charged regions, allowing the molecules to "feel" and interact with each other without making direct contact, like magnets brought close together,” says Jin. "One of the nice things about ultra cold atoms is that you can think of them as model systems where you can play with quantum mechanics," she adds.

Quantum Leap

Experimental work of researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has also resulted in the discovery of a new type of matter with a new type of magnetism - that could change the way computers store information.

The existence of this new state, called a quantum spin liquid (QSL), was reported in the journal, Nature, in December 2013. The QSL is a solid crystal, but its magnetic state is described as liquid: Unlike the other two kinds of magnetism, the magnetic orientations of the individual particles within it fluctuate constantly, resembling the constant motion of molecules within a true liquid.

“There is a strong interaction between them, and due to quantum effects, they don’t lock in place,” says Young Lee, senior author of the research. The existence of QSLs has been theorized since 1987, but until now no one has succeeded in actually finding one. In MIT’s case, the researchers spent 10 months growing a tiny sliver of herbertsmithite - a material that was suspected to be a QSL.

Moving forward, Lee says that the discovery of QSLs could lead to advances in data storage (new forms of magnetic storage) and communications (long-range entanglement). Lee also seems to think that QSLs could lead us towards higher-temperature superconductors - i.e. materials that superconduct under relatively normal conditions, rather than -200C.

A Super Cool Future

These ground-breaking discoveries are truly exciting as they introduce us to completely new possibilities.

So much so, that we ultimately have no idea how they might eventually affect our world. Young Lee sums it up perfectly, noting: “We have to get a more comprehensive understanding of the big picture as there is no theory that describes everything that we’re seeing.” Teleportation anyone?

More about Professor Deborah Jin:

For Women in Science

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