Friday, April 29, 2016

Technical help question: Quantum Design magnet power supplies

I'd like to ask my readers that own Quantum Design PPMS or MPMS instruments for help regarding a technical glitch.  My aging PPMS superconducting magnet power supply (the kind QD calls the H-plate version) has developed a problem.  For high fields (say above 7 T) the power supply fails to properly put the magnet in persistent mode and throws up an error in the control software.  After talking with QD, it seems like options are limited.  They no longer service this model of power supply, and therefore one option would be to buy a new one.  However, I have a sense that other people have dealt with this issue before, and I would feel dumb buying a new supply if the answer was that this is a known issue involving a $ 0.30 diode or something.  Without a schematic it's difficult to do diagnostics ourselves.  Has anyone out there seen this issue and knows how to correct it?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Oxide interfaces for fun and profit

The so-called III-V semiconductors, compounds that combine a group III element (Al, Ga, In) and a group V element (N, As, P, Sb), are mainstays of (opto)electronic devices and condensed matter physics.  They have never taken over for Si in logic and memory like some thought they might, for a number of materials science and economic reasons.  (To paraphrase an old line, "GaAs is the material of the future [for logic] and always will be.")  However, they are tremendously useful, in part because they are (now) fortuitously easy to grow - many of the compounds prefer the diamond-like "zinc blende" structure, and it is possible to prepare atomically sharp, flat, abrupt interfaces between materials with quite different semiconducting properties (very different band gaps and energetic alignments relative to each other).  Fundamentally, though, the palette is limited - these materials are very conventional semiconductors, without exhibiting other potentially exciting properties or competing phases like ferroelectricity, magnetism, superconductivity, etc.

Enter oxides.  Various complex oxides can exhibit all of these properties, and that has led to a concerted effort to develop materials growth techniques to create high quality oxide thin films, with an eye toward creating the same kind of atomically sharp heterointerfaces as in III-Vs.  A foundational paper is this one by Ohtomo and Hwang, where they used pulsed laser deposition to produce a heterojunction between LaAlO3, an insulating transparent oxide, and SrTiO3, another insulating transparent oxide (though one known to be almost a ferroelectric).  Despite the fact that both of those parent constituents are band insulators, the interface between the two was found to play host to a two-dimensional gas of electrons with remarkable properties.  The wikipedia article linked above is pretty good, so you should read it if you're interested.   

When you think about it, this is really remarkable.  You take an insulator, and another insulator, and yet the interface between them acts like a metal.  Where did the charge carriers come from?  (It's complicated - charge transfer from LAO to STO, but the free surface of the LAO and its chemical termination is hugely important.)  What is happening right at that interface?  (It's complicated.  There can be some lattice distortion from the growth process. There can be oxygen vacancies and other kinds of defects.  Below about 105 K the STO substrate distorts "ferroelastically", further complicating matters.)   Do the charge carriers live more on one side of the interface than the other, as in III-V interfaces, where the (conduction) band offset between the two layers can act like a potential barrier, and the same charge transfer that spills electrons onto one side leads to a self-consistent electrostatic potential that holds the charge layer right against that interface?  (Yes.)

Even just looking at the LAO/STO system, there is a ton of exciting work being performed.  Directly relevant to the meeting I just attended, Jeremy Levy's group at Pitt has been at the forefront of creating nanoscale electronic structures at the LAO/STO interface and examining their properties.  It turns out (one of these fortunate things!) that you can use a conductive atomic force microscope tip to do (reversible) electrochemistry at the free LAO surface, and basically draw conductive structures with nm resolution at the buried LAO/STO interface right below.   This is a very powerful technique, and it's enabled the study of the basic science of electronic transport at this interface at the nanoscale.

Beyond LAO/STO, over the same period there has been great progress in complex oxide materials growth by groups at a number of universities and at national labs.  I will refrain from trying to list them since I don't know them all and don't want to offend with the sin of inadvertent omission.  It is now possible to prepare a dizzying array of material types (ferromagnetic insulators like GdTiO3; antiferromagnetic insulators like SmTiO3; Mott insulators like LaTiO3; nickelates; superconducting cuprates; etc.) and complicated multilayers and superlattices of these systems.   It's far too early to say where this is all going, but historically the ability to grow new material systems of high quality with excellent precision tends to pay big dividends in the long term, even if they're not the benefits originally envisioned.



Friday, April 22, 2016

The Pittsburgh Quantum Institute: PQI2016 - Quantum Challenges

For the last 2.5 days I've been at the PQI2016:  Quantum Challenges symposium.  It's been a very fun meeting, bringing together talks spanning physical chemistry, 2d materials, semiconductor and oxide structures, magnetic systems, plasmonics, cold atoms, and quantum information.  Since the talks are all going to end up streamable online from the PQI website, I'll highlight just a couple of things that I learned rather than trying to summarize everything.

  • If you can make a material such that the dielectric permittivity \( \epsilon \equiv \kappa \epsilon_{0} \) is zero over some frequency range, you end up with a very odd situation.   The phase velocity of EM waves at that frequency would go to infinity, and the in-medium wavelength at that frequency would therefore become infinite.  Everything in that medium (at that frequency) would be in the near-field of everything else.  See here for a paper about what this means for transmission of EM waves through such a region, and here for a review.  
  • Screening of charge and therefore carrier-carrier electrostatic interactions in 2d materials like transition metal dichalcogenides varies in a complicated way with distance.  At short range,  screening is pretty effective (logarithmic with distance, basically the result you'd get if you worried about the interaction potential from an infinitely long charged rod), and at longer distances the field lines leak out into empty space, so the potential falls like \(1/\epsilon_{0}r\).  This has a big effect on the binding of electrons and holes into excitons in these materials.
  • There are a bunch of people working on unconventional transistor designs, including devices based on band-to-band tunneling between band-offset 2d materials.
  • In a discussion about growth and shapes of magnetic domains in a particular system, I learned about the Wulff construction, and this great paper by Conyers Herring on why crystal take the shapes that they do.  
  • After a public talk by Michel Devoret, I think I finally have some sense of the fundamental differences between the Yale group's approach to quantum computing and the John Martinis/Google group's approach.  This deserves a longer post later.  
  • Oxide interfaces continue to show interesting and surprising properties - again, I hope to say more later.
  • On a more science-outreach note, I learned about an app called Periscope (basically part of twitter) that allows people to do video broadcasting from their phones.  Hat tip to Julia Majors (aka Feynwoman) who pointed this out to me and that it's becoming a platform for a lot of science education work.
I'll update this post later with links to the talks when those become available.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sci-fi time, part 2: Really big lasers

I had a whole post written about laser weapons, and then the announcement came out about trying to build laser-launched interstellar probes, so I figured I should revise and talk about that as well.

Now that the future is here, and space-faring rockets can land upright on autonomous ships, it's clearly time to look at other formerly science fiction technologies.  Last August I wrote a post looking at whether laser pistols really make practical physics sense as weapons.  The short answer:  Not really, at least not with present power densities.

What about laser cannons?  The US military has been looking at bigger, high power lasers for things like anti-aircraft and ship defense applications.  Given that Navy ships would not have to worry so much about portability and size, and that in principle nuclear-powered ships should have plenty of electrical generating capacity, do big lasers make more sense here?  It's not entirely clear.  Supposedly the operating costs of the laser systems are less than $1/shot, though that's also not a transparent analysis.

Let's look first at the competition.  The US Navy has been using the Phalanx gun system for ship defense, a high speed 20mm cannon that can spew out 75 rounds per second, each about 100 g and traveling at around 1100 m/s.   That's an effective output power, in kinetic energy alone, of 4.5 MW (!).  Even ignoring explosive munitions, each projectile carries 60 kJ of kinetic energy.  The laser weapons being tested are typically 150 kW.  To transfer the same amount of energy to the target as a single kinetic slug from the Phalanx would require keeping the beam focused on the target (assuming complete absorption) for about 0.4 sec, which is a pretty long time if the target is an inbound antiship missile traveling at supersonic speeds.   Clearly, as with hand-held weapons, kinetic projectiles are pretty serious in terms of power and delivered energy on target, and beating that with lasers is not simple.

The other big news story recently about big lasers was the announcement by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking of the Starshot project, an attempt to launch many extremely small and light probes toward Alpha Centauri using ground-based lasers for propulsion.  One striking feature of the plan is the idea of using a ground-based optical phased array laser system with about 100 GW of power (!) to boost the probes up to about 0.2 c in a few minutes.  As far as I can tell, the reason for the very high power and quick boost is to avoid problems with pointing the lasers for long periods of time as the earth rotates and the probes become increasingly distant.  Needless to say, pulling this off is an enormous technical challenge.  That power would be about equivalent to 50 large city-serving powerplants.   I really wonder if it would be easier to drop the power by a factor of 1000, increase the boost time by a factor of 1000, and use a 100 MW nuclear reactor in solar orbit (i.e. at the earth-sun L1 or L2 point) to avoid the earth rotation or earth orbital velocity constraint.  That level of reactor power is comparable to what is used in naval ships, and I have a feeling like the pain of working out in space may be easier to overcome than the challenge of building a 100 GW laser array.  Still, exciting times that anyone is even entertaining the idea of trying this.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Joulies": the coffee equivalent of whiskey stones, done right

Once upon a time I wrote a post about whiskey stones, rocks that you cool down and then place into your drink to chill your Scotch without dilution, and why they are rather lousy at controlling your drink's temperature.  The short version:  Ice is so effective, per mass, at cooling your drink because its melting is a phase transition.  Add heat to a mixture of ice and water, and the mixture sits there at zero degrees Celsius, sucking up energy (the "latent heat") as the solid ice is converted into liquid water.  Conversely, a rock just gets warmer.

Now look at Joulies, designed to keep your hot beverage of choice at about 60 degrees Celsius.  Note:  I've never used these, so I don't know how well-made they are, but the science behind them is right.  They're stainless steel and contain a material that happens to have a melting phase transition right at 60 C and a pretty large latent heat - more on that below.  If you put them into coffee that's hotter than this, the coffee will transfer heat to the Joulies until their interior warms up to the transition, and then the temperature of the coffee+Joulies will sit fixed at 60 C as the filling partially melts.   Then, if you leave the coffee sitting there and it loses heat to the environment through evaporation, conduction, convection, and radiation, the Joulies will transfer heat back to the coffee as their interior solidifies, again doing their level best to keep the (Joulies+coffee) at 60 C as long as there is a liquid/solid mixture within the Joulies.  This is how you regulate the temperature of your beverage.  (Note that we can estimate the total latent heat of the filling of the Joulies - you'd want it to be enough that cooling 375 ml of coffee from 100 C to 60 C would not completely melt the filling.  At 4.18 J/g for the specific heat of water (close enough), the total latent heat of the Joulies filling should be more than 375 g  \( \times \) 40 degrees C  \( \times \) 4.18 J/g = 62700 J. )

Unsurprisingly, the same company offers a version filled with a different material, one that melts a bit below 0 C, for cooling your cold beverages.  Basically they function like an ice cube, but with the melting liquid contained within a thin stainless steel shell so that it doesn't dilute your drink.

Random undergrad anecdote:  As a senior in college I was part of an undergrad senior design team in a class where the theme was satellites and spacecraft.  We designed a probe to land on Venus, and a big part of our design was a temperature-regulating reservoir of a material with a big latent heat of melting and a melting point at something like 100 C, to keep the interior of the probe comparatively cool for as long as possible.  Clearly we should've been early investors in Joulies.


Friday, April 01, 2016

Interacting Quantum Systems Out of Equilibrium - Workshop at Rice

The Rice Center for Quantum Materials will be hosting a workshop, "Interacting Quantum Systems Driven Out of Equilibrium", at Rice University in Houston on May 5-6, 2016.

  A central challenge of condensed matter and atomic physics today is understanding interacting, quantum many-body systems driven out of thermal equilibrium.  Thanks to recent advances in both experimental and theoretical techniques, this is an exciting, active area that is seeing new emergent results.  The Rice Center for Quantum Materials is hosting a workshop that will bring together the diverse community of researchers examining the various facets of the nonequilibrium quantum many-body problem.  Experimental systems include:  quantum materials driven by electronic bias beyond the linear regime; optical pump/probe methods to examine dynamic and steady-state nonequilibrium response; ultracold atoms in response to quench conditions and probed with far-from-equilibrium spectroscopy.  Theoretical issues include: coherent many-body dynamics; many-body localization; Floquet states and dynamics in driving potentials; and thermalization/dissipation with driven quantum dynamics.

  For more details, including a speaker list and draft program, please see our website.  Attendance by students/postdocs from traditionally underrepresented groups is encouraged.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Energy technology and research opportunities - DOE quadrennial review

If you are interested in the US Department of Energy's take on the current status and trends in energy technology and related research, I strongly encourage you to watch this talk, by Franklin "Lynn" Orr, current US undersecretary of energy for science and energy.  It's a 40 minute talk, full of a lot of information.

If you want to see the actual, detailed, referenced document with graphs and bibliography, see here.