Article updated 2nd July 2021
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Many have not heard, let alone are excited by the developments in thin-film quantum materials, but the effect these materials will have on our lives cannot be underestimated. Day-to-day applications that are taken for granted, like our computers, phones, and cars will all benefit from this emergent technology.
Thin-film quantum materials will enable us to increase our power transfer rates and reduce the current loss of energy power grids regularly lost to homes around the world. Thin-film quantum materials could also be of use to spintronics, a power generation method that exploits electron spins more than classical electronics can. Perhaps most importantly though, is the application thin-film materials could have on super-conductivity experiments.
Generating Electricity Using Only Light
Researchers from Pennsylvania University published a study in August 2019 which generated great excitement. Weyl sentimentals are a type of quantum material where conduction and variance bands cross in single points. These are Weyl nodes. It was discovered that the Weyl sentimentals have mass quantum states whose electrical properties can be controlled using only light (photogalvanic properties). This could allow electrical current generation. The researchers were able to control the movement of current by altering the geometric property of the silicon atoms on the surface of the quantum material. Initially, they could not understand the direction the electrical field was moving when activated by the light. Instead of flowing in one direction, the current kept moving around the semimetal in a circular pattern. Existing theory and frameworks were not able to explain this flow so the researchers were forced to develop a new framework to explain what their experiments showed.
When you shine light on matter, it’s natural to think about a beam of light as laterally uniform. What made these experiments work is that the beam has a boundary, and what made the current circulate had to do with its behavior at the edge of the beam.
Eugene Mele, School of Engineering & Applied Science, University of Pennsylvania
This work has allowed researchers to not only better observe quantum phenomena, but also a way to engineer and control unique quantum properties by simply changing light beam patterns. Spintronics become more relevant here because the future development of spintronics that can transfer digitized information based on the spin of photons of electrons is now possible thanks to the research from Penn University. When applied out of a laboratory setting, power could in the future conceivably be generated without the need for large tunneling and cabling. Instead, it could be generated and controlled by light beams.
Thin-film quantum materials provide researchers with a realistic grounding in how to bring benefits to everyday life. One of the most exciting avenues of development incorporates the development of tech that allows us to create materials with almost unlimited structural, magnetic and electronic properties. For example, super-conductivity allows us to transmit energy at 100% efficiency.
Another application lies in the realm of quantum computing. The potential benefits of enabling end-to-end quantum encryption in the financial sector, for example, is obvious. Such technology would make it statistically impossible for a hacker to break into. This technology is not as far off as many think either, with a study published in May 2019 demonstrating thin films capable of controlling the emission of single photons. This is a necessity for quantum computing and key distribution in quantum communications. But with Google, Microsoft and other big technology companies investing heavily in quantum R&D, the question is no longer ‘if’, but ‘when’ will quantum technology be applied in everyday life.
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