Wednesday, September 30, 2015

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter Physics PI Meeting 2015 - Day 3

Things I learned from the last (half)day of the DOE PI meeting:
  • "vortex explosion" would be a good name for a 1980s metal band.
  • Pulsed high fields make possible some really amazing measurements in both high \(T_{\mathrm{C}}\) materials and more exotic things like SmB6.
  • Looking at structural defects (twinning) and magnetic structural issues (spin orientation domain walls) can give insights into complicated issues in pnictide superconductors.
  • Excitons can be a nice system for looking at coherence phenomena ordinarily seen in cold atom systems.  See here and here.  Theory proposes that you could play with these at room temperature with the right material system.
  • Thermal gradients can drive spin currents even in insulating paramagnets, and these can be measured with techniques that could be performed down to small length scales. 
  • Very general symmetry considerations when discussing competing ordered states (superconductivity, charge density wave order, spin density wave order) can lead to testable predictions.
  • Hybrid, monocrystalline nanoparticles combining metals and semiconductors are very pretty and can let you drive physical processes based on the properties of both material systems.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter Physics PI Meeting 2015 - Day 2

Among the things I learned at the second day of the meeting:

  • In relatively wide quantum wells, and high fields, you can enter the quantum Hall insulating state.  Using microwave measurements, you can see signatures of phase transitions within the insulating state - there are different flavors of insulator in there.  See here.
  • As I'd alluded to a while ago, you can make "artificial" quantum systems with graphene-like energetic properties (for example).  
  • In 2d hole gasses at the interface between Ge and overlying SiGe, you can get really huge anisotropy of the electrical resistivity in magnetic fields, with the "hard" axis along the direction of the in-plane magnetic field.
  • In single-layer thick InN quantum wells with GaN above and below, you can have a situation where there is basically zero magnetoresistance.  That's really weird.
  • In clever tunneling spectroscopy experiments (technique here) on 2d hole gasses, you can see sharp inelastic features that look like inelastic excitation of phonons.  
  • Tunneling measurements through individual magnetic nanoparticles can show spin-orbit-coupling-induced level spacings, and cranking up the voltage bias can permit spin processes that are otherwise blockaded.  See here.
  • Niobium islands on a gold film are a great tunable system for studying the motion of vortices in superconductors, and even though the field is a mature one, new and surprising insights come out when you have a clean, controlled system and measurement techniques. 
  • Scanning Josephson microscopy (requiring a superconducting STM tip, a superconducting sample, and great temperature and positional control) is going to be very powerful for examining the superconducting order parameter on atomic scales.
  • In magnetoelectric systems (e.g., ferroelectrics coupled to magnetic materials), combinations of nonlinear optics and electronic measurements are required to unravel which of the various possible mechanisms (charge vs strain mediated) generates the magnetoelectric coupling.
  • Strongly coupling light in a cavity with Rydberg atoms should be a great technique for generating many body physics for photons (e.g., the equivalent of quantum Hall).
  • Carbon nanotube devices can be great systems for looking at quantum phase transitions and quantum critical scaling, in certain cases.
  • Controlling vortex pinning and creep is hugely important in practical superconductors.  Arrays of ferromagnetic particles as in artificial spin ice systems can control and manipulate vortices.  Thermal fluctuations in high temperature superconductors could end up limiting performance badly, even if the transition temperature is at room temperature or more, and the situation is worse if the material is more anisotropic in terms of effective mass.
  • "Oxides are like people; it is their defects that make them interesting."

Monday, September 28, 2015

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter Physics PI meeting 2015 - Day 1

Things I learned at today's session of the DOE ECMP PI meeting:
  • In the right not-too-thick, not-too-thin layers of the 3d topological insulator Bi1.5Sb0.5Te1.7Se1.3 (a cousin of Bi2Se3 that actually is reasonably insulating in the bulk), it is possible to use top and bottom gates to control the surface states on the upper and lower faces, independently.  See here.
  • In playing with suspended structures of different stackings of a few layers of graphene, you can get some dramatic effects, like the appearance of large, sharp energy gaps.  See here.
  • While carriers in graphene act in some ways like massless particles because their band energy depends linearly on their crystal momentum (like photon energy depends linearly on photon momentum in electrodynamics), they have a "dynamical" effective mass, \(m^* = \hbar (\pi n_{2d})^{1/2}/v_{\mathrm{F}}\), related to how the electronic states respond to an electric bias.  
  • PdCoO2 is a weird layered metal that can be made amazingly clean, so that its residual resistivity can be as small as 8 n\(\Omega\)-cm.  That's about 200 times smaller than the room temperature resistivity of gold or copper.  
  • By looking at how anisotropic the electrical resistivity is as a function of direction in the plane of layered materials, and how that anisotropy can vary with applied strain, you can define a "nematic susceptibility".  That susceptibility implies the existence of fluctuations in the anisotropy of the electronic properties (nematic fluctuations).  Those fluctuations seem to diverge at the structural phase transition in the iron pnictide superconductors.  See here.   Generically, these kinds of fluctuations seem to boost the transition temperature of superconductors.
  • YPtBi is a really bizarre material - nonmetallic temperature dependence, high resistivity, small carrier density, yet superconducts.  
  • Skyrmions (see here) can be nucleated in controlled ways in the right material systems.  Using the spin Hall effect, they can be pushed around.  They can also be moved by thermally driven spin currents, and interestingly skyrmions tend to flow from the cold side of a sample to the hot side.  
  • It's possible to pump angular momentum from an insulating ferromagnet, through an insulating antiferromagnet (NiO), and into a metal.  See here.
  • The APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics have been a big hit, using attendance as a metric.  Extrapolating, in a couple of years it looks like nearly all of the undergraduate women majoring in physics in the US will likely be attending one of these.
  • Making truly nanoscale clusters out of some materials (e.g., Co2Si, Mn5Si3) can turn them from weak ferromagnets or antiferromagnets in the bulk into strong ferromagnets in nanoparticle form.   See here.

Friday, September 25, 2015

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter Physics PI meeting 2015

As they did two years ago, the Basic Energy Sciences part of the US DOE is having a gathering of experimental condensed matter physics investigators at the beginning of next week.  The DOE likes to do this (see here for proceedings of past meetings), with the idea of getting people together to talk about the current and future state of the field and ideally seed some collaborations.  I will try to blog a bit about the meeting, as I did in 2013 (here and here).

Friday, September 18, 2015

CMP and materials in science fiction

Apologies for the slower posting frequency.  Other obligations (grants, research, teaching, service) are significant right now.

I thought it might be fun to survey people for examples of condensed matter and materials physics as they show up in science fiction (and/or comics, which are fantasy more than hard SF).  I don't mean examples where fiction gets science badly wrong or some magic rock acts as a macguffin (Infinity Stones, Sankara stones) - I mean cases where materials and their properties are thought-provoking.

A couple of my favorites:
  • scrith, the bizarre material used to construct the Ringworld.  It's some exotic material that has 40% opacity to neutrinos without being insanely dense like degenerate matter.
  • From the same author, shadow square wire, which is an absurdly strong material that also doubles as a high temperature superconductor.  (Science goof in there:  Niven says that this material is also a perfect (!) thermal conductor.  That's incompatible with superconductivity, though - the energy gap that gives you the superconductivity suppresses the electronic contribution to thermal conduction.  Ahh well.)
  • Even better, from the same author, the General Products Hull, a giant single-molecule structure that is transparent in the visible, opaque to all other wavelengths, and where the strength of the atomic bonds is greatly enhanced by a fusion power source.
  • Vibranium, the light, strong metal that somehow can dissipate kinetic energy very efficiently.  (Like many materials in SF, it has whatever properties it needs to for the sake of the plot.  Hard to reconcile the dissipative properties with Captain America's ability to bounce his shield off objects with apparently perfect restitution.)
  • Old school:  cavorite, the H. G. Wells wonder material that blocks the gravitational interaction.
What are your favorite examples?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Amazingly clear results: density gradient ultracentrifugation edition

Ernest Rutherford reportedly said something like, if your experiment needs statistics, you should have done a better experiment.  Sometimes this point is driven home by an experimental technique that gives results that are strikingly clear.  To the right is an example of this, from Zhu et al., Nano Lett. (in press), doi:  10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b03075.  The technique here is called "density gradient ultracentrifugation". 

You know that the earth's atmosphere is denser at ground level, with density decreasing as you go up in altitude.  If you ignore temperature variation in the atmosphere, you get a standard undergraduate statistical physics problem ("the exponential atmosphere") - the gravitational attraction to the earth pulls the air molecules down, but the air has a non-zero temperature (and therefore kinetic energy).  A density gradient develops so that the average gravitational "drift" downward is balanced on average by "diffusion" upward (from high density to low density). 

The idea of density gradient ultracentrifugation is to work with a solution instead of the atmosphere, and generate a vastly larger effective gravitational force (to produce a much sharper density gradient within the fluid) by using an extremely fast centrifuge.  If there are particles suspended within the solution, they end up sitting at a level in the test tube that corresponds to their average density.  In this particular paper, the particles in question are little suspended bits of hexagonal boron nitride, a quasi-2d material similar in structure to graphite.  The little hBN flakes have been treated with a surfactant to suspend them, and depending on how many layers are in each flake, they each have a different effective density in the fluid.  After appropriate dilution and repeated spinning (41000 RPM for 14 hours for the last step!), you can see clearly separated bands, corresponding to layers of suspension containing particular thickness hBN flakes.  This paper is from the Hersam group, and they have a long history with this general technique, especially involving nanotubes.  The results are eye-popping and seem nearly miraculous.  Very cool.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The (Intel) Science Talent Search - time to end corporate sponsorship?

When I was a kid, I heard about the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a national science fair competition that sparked the imaginations of many many young, would-be scientists and engineeers for decades.  I didn't participate in it, but it definitely was inspiring.  As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to work a couple of summers for Westinghouse's R&D lab, their Science Technology Center outside of Pittsburgh, learning a lot about what engineers and applied physicists actually do.  When I was in grad school, Westinghouse as a major technology corporation basically ceased to exist, and Intel out-bid rival companies for the privilege of supporting and giving their name to the STS.  Now, Intel has decided to drop its sponsorship, for reasons that are completely opaque.  "Intel's interests have changed," says the chair of the administrative board that runs the contest.

While it seems likely that some other corporate sponsor will step forward, I have to ask two questions.  First, why did Intel decide to get out of this?  Seriously, the cost to them has to be completely negligible.  Is there some compelling business reason to drop this, under the assumption that someone else will take up the mantle?  It's a free country, and of course they can do what they like with their name and sponsorship, but this just seems bizarre.  Was this viewed as a burden?  Was there a sense that they didn't get enough effective advertising or business return for their investment?  Did it really consume far more resources than they were comfortable allocating?

Second, why should a company sponsor this?  I ask this as it seems likely that the companies with the biggest capital available to act as sponsors will be corporations like Google, Microsoft, Amazon - companies that don't, as their core mission, actually do physical sciences and engineering research.  Wouldn't it be better to establish a philanthropic entity to run this competition - someone who would not have to worry about business pressures in terms of the financing?   There are a number of excellent, well-endowed foundations who seem to have missions that align well with the STS.  There's the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Dreyfus Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and I'm sure I'm leaving out some possibilities.  I hope someone out there gives serious consideration to endowing the STS, rather than going with another corporate sponsorship deal that may not stand the test of time.

Update:  From the Wired article about this, the STS cost Intel about $6M/yr.  Crudely, that means that an endowment of $120M would be enough to support this activity in perpetuity, assuming 5% payout (typical university investment assumptions, routinely beaten by Harvard and others).

Update 2:  I've thought about this some more, and maybe the best solution would be for a university to sponsor this.   For example, this seems tailor-made for MIT, which styles itself as a huge hub of innovation (see the Technology Review, e.g.). Stanford could do it.  Harvard could do $6M a year and not even notice.  It would be perfect as a large-scale outreach/high school education sponsorship effort.  Comments?

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Science and narrative tension

Recently I've come across some good examples of multidisciplinary science communication.  The point of commonality:  narrative tension, in the sense that the science is woven in as part of telling a story.  The viewer/reader really wants to know how the story resolves, and either is willing to deal with the science to get there, or (more impressive, from the communication standpoint) actually wants to see the science behind the plot resolution.

Possibly the best example of the latter is The Martian, by Andy Weir.  If you haven't read it, you should.  There is going to be a big budget film coming out based on it, and while the preview looks very good, the book is going to be better.  Here is an interview with Andy Weir by Adam Savage, and it makes the point that people can actually like math and science as part of the plot.

Another recent example, more documentary-style, is The Mystery of Matter:  Search for the Elements, which aired this past month on PBS in the US.  The three episodes are here, here, and here.  This contains much of the same information as a Nova episode, Hunting the Elements.  It's interesting to contrast the two - some people certainly like the latter's fun, jaunty approach (wherein the host plays the every-person proxy for the audience, saying "Gee whiz!" and asking questions of scientists), while the former has some compelling historical reenactments.  I like the story-telling approach a bit more, but that may be because I'm a sucker for history.  Note:  Nice job by David Muller in Hunting the Elements, using Cornell's fancy TEM to look at the atoms in bronze.

I also heard a good story on NPR this week about Ainissa Ramirez, a materials scientist who has reoriented her career path into "science evangelist".   Her work and passion are very impressive, and she is also a proponent of story-telling as a way to hold interest.  We overlapped almost perfectly in time at Stanford during our doctorates, and I wish we'd met. 

Now to think about the equivalent of The Martian, but where the audience longs to learn more about condensed matter physics and nanoscale science to see how the hero survives.... (kidding.  Mostly.)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Nano and the oil industry

I went to an interesting lunchtime talk today by Sergio Kapusta, former chief scientist of Shell.  He gave a nice overview of the oil/gas industry and where nanoscience and nanotechnology fit in.   Clearly one of the main issues of interest is assessing (and eventually recovering) oil and gas trapped in porous rock, where the hydrocarbons can be trapped due to capillarity and the connectivity of the pores and cracks may be unknown.  Nanoparticles can be made with various chemical functionalizations (for example, dangling ligands known to be cleaved if the particle temperature exceeds some threshold) and then injected into a well; the particles can then be sought at another nearby well.  The particles act as "reporters".  The physics and chemistry of getting hydrocarbons out of these environments is all about the solid/liquid interface at the nanoscale.  More active sensor technologies for the aggressive, nasty down-hole environment are always of interest, too.

When asked about R&D spending in the oil industry, he pointed out something rather interesting:  R&D is actually cheap compared to the huge capital investments made by the major companies.  That means that it's relatively stable even in boom/bust cycles because it's only a minor perturbation on the flow of capital.  

Interesting numbers:  Total capital in hardware in the field for the petrochemical industry is on the order of $2T, built up over several decades.  Typical oil consumption worldwide is around 90M barrels equivalent per day (!).   If the supply ranges from 87-93M barrels per day, the price swings from $120 to $40/barrel, respectively.  Pretty wild.