UChicago researcher awarded NSF grant to manufacture advanced quantum materials

Assistant Professor Shuolong Yang and his group at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) are finding inspiration for quantum computing from the unlikeliest of places—the ancient art of woodblock printing.

Quantum computers could have the ability to process complex calculations and run simulations not possible on classical systems, but scientists and engineers are still working to solve decoherence—a phenomenon where environmental interference, such as light and vibration, corrupts sensitive quantum information.

One potential solution is to create quantum computers from topological materials, which resist decoherence through their unique molecular and electronic structures.

But these materials remain difficult to engineer and process at the nanoscale. To find a better process that could ultimately be scaled up, Yang and his group at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) hope to prove their new technique works—and ultimately help usher in a new age of quantum manufacturing. Their work is funded by a new grant from the National Science Foundation.

“This project could bridge the gap between new quantum materials and using those materials in future quantum technology,” Yang said.

The material Yang will develop is iron selenium tellurium, a topological superconductor, which has the potential to carry quantum information while remaining immune to errors. To make it, Yang and his team propose a new process inspired by block printing—an artmaking technique in which ink is applied to the surface of a carved woodblock, then applied to paper to make a print.

Yang will create nanoscale blocks that will “print” this new quantum material. By carving a pattern onto an oxide substrate, the researchers could then deposit ultrathin iron selenium tellurium onto the substrate, creating the structure needed to realize a quantum device. These structures could be made in batches, which means this technique could lead to a scalable manufacturing process.

Because oxygen can affect the properties of these materials, the whole process happens in a vacuum chamber. Before researchers remove the structure from the chamber, they apply a capping layer on top of it to protect against oxidation.

After demonstrating their new process, the research team hopes to use it to make a quantum device called a Josephson junction. This device could help them prove the existence of quantum particles called Majorana fermions, which could create exceptional qubits. (Several research groups around the world have reported finding these particles in quantum materials, but their existence has not been confirmed, and at least one major finding has been retracted.)

Yang credits the interdisciplinary nature of PME for encouraging his group to connect materials synthesis with quantum technologies and to think about research in a “totally disruptive way.”

“There are still a lot of intriguing questions about these materials platforms,” Yang says. “We hope to take this material research to the next phase that allows us to answer some of these physics questions and build meaningful quantum structures.”