Scientists at the University of B.C. hope that $1.7 million in provincial funding will help them make a breakthrough that could lead to levitating trains and cars.
The money from the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund is going to the Quantum Matter Institute to help a team of scientists led by physics professor Andrea Damascelli. They’re working to develop new quantum materials, which have unique properties such as zero electrical resistance, known as superconductivity.
The only problem is that to achieve those unique properties, existing quantum materials have to be cooled to extreme temperatures, which makes them costly and cumbersome to use in practical applications.
But Damascelli and his team are hoping to change that. They’ll be trying to create quantum materials that exhibit their strange properties at room temperature so they can be widely used outside of high-tech labs such as the one he runs at UBC.
Damascelli believes quantum materials will have a bigger impact on our lives than the semiconductor, which was invented in 1947 and laid the groundwork for the integrated circuit and the computer revolution that has so shaped the contemporary world.
“Today, I feel that we’re on the cusp of an even bigger revolution,” Damascelli said Monday. “This is a quantum material revolution, which I believe will have a much larger impact on our lives.”
Damascelli predicted that when quantum materials with superconductivity properties can operate at room temperature, they could be used to reduce the size of an MRI scanner from a huge, bulky machine that weighs several thousand kilograms to one as small and light as a laptop.
Other applications include making super-efficient electrical transmission lines and trains and other vehicles that levitate on magnetic tracks.
“We would be able to have many applications, many possibilities that we can’t even imagine at this stage,” he said at the announcement of the provincial funding in the atrium of the UBC Earth Science Building.
Afterwards, Damascelli gave a display of magnetic levitation at the institute. In his lab, he placed a quantum material known was YBCO (which is made of yttrium barium copper oxide) into a container and then poured in liquid nitrogen that cooled the substance to -196 C.
After a few moments, he took it out with tongs and placed it on a small oval track made from numerous flat magnets. At rest, the YBCO levitated a short distance above the track in the magnetic envelope created by the magnets below. Once he gave it a little push, the six-sided piece of YBCO sped around the track so effortlessly and without any visible means of support, it looked like a magic trick.
As it warmed, it lost its superconductivity, slowed, and came to rest on the magnets. To show the effect of insulation, Damascelli placed the YBCO in a blue Styrofoam boat. On the track, it completed several more loops than the YBCO without insulation, before it too warmed and came to a halt.
Damascelli said funding is key to allow QMI to create new quantum materials with precision down to the atomic level. His team will be making them layer by layer in ultra-high-vacuum conditions and be able to observe individual electrons moving through solids without ever exposing materials to air.
“We will strive to achieve new functional properties, in particular room-temperature superconductivity,” he said.
He said money from the BCKDF has allowed QMI to attract top researchers from around the world. QMI is in a collaborative venture with the Max Planck Society of Germany.
Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Andrew Wilkinson announced the funding for QMI as one of the 70 projects at UBC receiving $26.9 million this year from the BCKDF.
Founded in 1998, the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund funds research infrastructure projects in post-secondary institutions, research hospitals and affiliated non-profit agencies. Typically, the fund contributes 40 per cent of project costs and the federal Canada Foundation for Innovation another 40 per cent. The remaining 20 per cent comes from other sources that include the private sector.