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Putting the Focus on Quantum Matter

Scientists in a new institute in the Department of Physics and Astronomy are working to unlock the mysteries of quantum matter and reveal secrets that may eventually have practical applications in energy and information technology and superconductors.

The Institute for Quantum Matter (IQM) is a partnership among physicists at the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and Princeton University, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences. The institute’s aim is to create a “tight interaction” among theory, materials synthesis, and advanced spectroscopic tools to probe materials that are necessary to discover new phases of matter, according to director Collin Broholm, a professor of physics at Hopkins.

“What we have basically done is to create a new institute by bringing together participants with different expertise, allowing us to work in a very focused way,” explains Broholm. “Our goal is the discovery, application, and understanding of materials with novel quantum mechanical properties.”

IQM researchers from Johns Hopkins include Broholm, N. Peter Armitage, Oleg Tchernyshyov, and Zlatko Tesanovic, all of whom are professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Robert Cava, a Princeton University materials scientist who previously worked with Broholm at Bell Labs, is also involved.

IQM’s sparkling new lab is located in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy and is stocked with state-of-the-art equipment, including a crystal growth laboratory and a range of “furnaces” used for preparing ceramic starter materials.

“Although quantum mechanics is typically thought of as a physical theory for understanding atomic particles such as electrons and nuclei, it also governs the interactions between the particles that make up everyday matter, and IQM’s mission is to investigate these kinds of matter,” explains Armitage.

Those materials include superconductors, which are materials that can carry electrical current without friction and, as a result, don’t waste energy generating heat. Familiar superconductors include those in high-speed magnetic levitating trains and hospital MRI machines. However, most superconducting materials in use today work only at very low temperatures, which means that they must be coupled with pricey super-cooling equipment.

At IQM, researchers are exploring the close connection between superconductivity and magnetism in metals, which may eventually make superconductivity “viable for room-temperature applications,” according to Broholm.

Such practical ramifications, however exciting, are not the raison d’etre of the new institute, according to Armitage.

“Although there may be applications for the materials we investigate, applications are not the primary interest, at least not at this time,” he explains. “We regard the study of these materials and the search for new states of matter as basic science, as fundamental as anything done in cosmology or astrophysics.

“What could be more fundamental than figuring out how simple particles that are governed by simple physical laws can conspire to give complex quantum mechanical effects?”