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“Quantum” has recently become the buzzword in popular science and applied industries for the latest technological and scientific breakthroughs. Nanotechnology, superfast computing projects from Google, IBM and Intel, and even James Bond movies have all been trading on the rising popularity of the word, with a somewhat questionable appropriation of it.
“Quantum materials” is a similarly contested yet popular term. This is perhaps one of the primary issues facing an emergent quantum materials industry, and it will be discussed in this article. However, industry investments, academic research focuses, and government and non-government organization sources of funding are all pointing towards a future quantum materials industry that will be robust and relevant.
“Quantum” simply means the smallest possible interacting size. Therefore, “quantum mechanics” describes how the smallest possible interacting particles in the universe – the atoms, electrons, bosons, neutrinos and other particles that are the building blocks of energy and matter – behave very differently from matter at larger scales.
The various corresponding technologies and scientific methods that relate to these minuscule scales are given the adjective “quantum”.
“Quantum materials”, then, may be considered something of a misnomer. All materials are regarded as “quantum” when studied and manipulated at their smallest, atomic scales of size, and any material could undergo this kind of study and manipulation. However, a growing movement in academia and research is arguing for the importance of a blanket term like “quantum materials”.
A 2016 article in Nature Physics, “The Rise of Quantum Materials”, delves into this debate. The article discusses the history of condensed-matter physics. This is the area of study that researches the physical properties of matter at both macro- and microscopic scales, as well as physical laws that govern it, such as electromagnetism and both classical and quantum mechanics.
The authors acknowledge that “quantum materials” may be something of a misnomer. “On a trivial level,” they write, “all materials exist thanks to the laws of quantum mechanics.” However, the term has gained in usefulness in recent years, and the authors argue, “There are good reasons to embrace quantum materials.”
Connecting the (Quantum) Dots
The main “good reason” described is that “quantum materials” can provide “a common thread linking disparate communities of researchers”. This is the benefit of creating a quantum materials industry.
This industry attention and investment will work to draw together research areas that are often disconnected. Areas including new synthetic materials development, advanced microscopy techniques such as AFM or spectrometry, quantum physics, nanotechnology and especially nanorobotics, quantum surface metrology, and more will be bolstered by increasing connections with one another through application in industry.
This “good reason” also reveals one of the major issues with creating a quantum materials industry. Disconnected research, development, and commercial applications. An emergent quantum materials industry will rely on a continually advancing advanced microscopy field. As ways of observing matter at the quantum scale improve then better means of fabricating and manipulating the behavior of matter at the quantum scale will emerge.
Similarly, as our understanding of matter’s incredibly peculiar behavior at the quantum scale increases, then our ability to make use of these strange interactions will increase. For example, quantum computing relies on the quantum effect of superposition: a particle can be either on or off simultaneously. (This is the behavior described in the famous Schroedinger’s cat thought experiment.)
Which materials can best undergo an inducement of this state remains a topic of research for some of the biggest investors in quantum computing, including Google and IBM.
The primary issue facing an emergent quantum materials industry can be summarised as one of connection. The connection of research interests, experiments (often requiring the use of expensive laboratory equipment and extensive iterations), funding criteria, and advances in discrete fields. This issue can be resolved the more “quantum materials” becomes a standard term under which companies and research groups can operate.
References and Further Reading
- The rise of quantum materials. (2016). Nature Physics, 12(2), pp.105–105.