1 December 2011

New nanoscience lab targets ‘quantum weirdness’

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A new quantum nanoscience lab that opened in Sydney last week aims to understand the physical limits of 'quantum weirdness'.
Quantum Nanoscience Lab

A new quantum nanoscience lab that opened in Sydney last week aims to understand the physical limits of 'quantum weirdness'. Shown here is a nano-device chip and circuit created by student James Colless at the Quantum Nanoscience Laboratory. When cooled to near absolute zero, this structure provides a platform for researchers to study the quantum physics of electronic devices. Credit: David Reilly

SYDNEY: A new quantum nanoscience lab that opened in Sydney last week aims to understand the physical limits of ‘quantum weirdness’.

Researchers in the University of Sydney lab will examine the fundamental science that dictates the way matter behaves on a nanoscopic scale – that’s 100 times smaller than a red blood cell. They plan to use their findings to develop devices with real world applications.

“At its most fundamental level, technology as we know it, from computer chips to the internet, is underpinned by quantum mechanics,” said laboratory director and physicist David Reilly.

Explaining the mysteries of the quantum domain

Back in the days of Einstein and Schrodinger, quantum mechanics was investigated with a theoretical approach, using just a pen and paper to conduct thought experiments. In the present day, researchers like Reilly want to advance understanding with physical experiments in the lab. “It’s all about trying to understand where quantum mechanics collapses into classical physics.”

“The kind of world that we live in – that macroscopic world of chairs, people and bricks, is in some ways very different from how atoms and electrons behave quantum mechanically. It’s fair to say that we human beings don’t understand where the divide is between quantum and classical physics. Where is that limit? Is it a length scale, when you get to 10 nanometres or maybe 100 nanometres? Well, we’ve pushed beyond that and we can still see quantum behaviour.”

From little things, big things grow

The original lab, a small space housed in the basement of the school of physics at the University of Sydney, has long since outgrown its humble beginnings in 2008. The new customised lab is a major node of a government-funded centre of excellence called Engineered Quantum Systems, whose goal is also the design and construction of devices which exploit quantum phenomena.

Aside from understanding the fundamental science of very small things, the researchers plan to investigate applications for their findings. “We’d like to understand how the weird and strange properties of quantum physics could lead to some kind of new technology,” said Reilly. The research will include projects in medical imaging and information processing.

Nanodiamonds to light up tumours

One of the lab’s flagship projects is the development of nanodiamonds for use in magnetic resonance imaging. The team are aiming to improve contrast in the scans, lighting up structures like tumours and making it easier for radiologists to diagnose disease.

The team are also working on a project with the potential to substantially increase computer processing power. “We’re trying to develop small computer chips which are nanoelectronic devices using quantum dots, where we can trap single electrons and manipulate the quantum properties of those single electrons for the purpose of building basic quantum logic for use in computer processors, in essence quantum information processing, or quantum computing.”

The work of the lab will inform the development of a A$110 million Australian Institute of Nanoscience (AIN), a new facility set to open in 2014 funded by the federal government and the University of Sydney. Reilly has been heavily involved in the conception of the AIN. “Together with other researchers at Sydney, we imagine that the team of people, the equipment and the science will almost become the AIN.”

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