Quantum computer scientist’s aim

UA physicist awarded $1.2 million to research topological insulators

— FAYETTEVILLE - University of Arkansas physicist Jak Chakhalian believes he can find a new miniature building block for a quantum computer that could out-decode and out-calculate today’s supercomputers.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory has enough faith in the venture that it has awarded him a five-year, $1.2 million research grant.

“It doesn’t matter how good the supercomputer is today - it could be the biggest and best computer - but there are still some encryption algorithms where the supercomputer would take millions and billions of years to solve it,” said Chakhalian, associate professor of physics at the university’s J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

Until recently, scientists recognized only three fundamental types of materials with which to build computer processors: semiconductors, such as silicon or germanium; insulators; and metals such as gold or iron, said Melissa Lutz Blouin, science and research communications director atthe university.

Chakhalian’s goal is to seek a new class of nanomaterials known as “topological insulators,” Blouin said.

The new materials class would be constructed at the nanoscale, which involves manipulating materials at the atomic level. Chakhalian’s insulator would combine magnetic and superconductivity properties.

It also would conduct electricity on the surface, within a single atomic layer, rather than throughout a component, making the computer faster and more efficient.

“Everything now is ‘nano,’” Chakhalian said, referring to the prefix derived from the Greek word for “dwarf” and meaning one-billionth. “We are working one atomic layer at a time - that’s how thin we are.”

He said that, as far as he knows, the $1.2 million grant is the largest the Army Research Laboratory has awarded to an individual researcher.

Researchers around the world, and in Arkansas, use supercomputers to help them solve complex problems in science that normally would take many people and manysmaller computers much longer to solve.

To solve scientific problems quicker, scientists around the world are in the early stages of developing quantum computers, which would operate differently from traditional, transistorbased computers.

Quantum computers are based on a theory of matter and energy known as quantum mechanics that focuses on the structure and behavior of atomic and molecular particles.

Similarly, researchers in nanoscience in disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology and engineering study the way microscopic particles of organic or inorganic mass - nature’s toolbox of atoms and molecules - arrange themselves naturally.

Then they try different groupings to create superiormedicines, fuels, chemicals or computer components.

In 2007, Chakhalian was part of an international collaboration of scientists who made a nanoscale materials discovery cited by Science magazine as one of the top 10 research breakthroughs of that year, university officials said.

Before this, scientific convention held that only an atom’s charge and electron spin influenced the properties of a nanostructure.

Chakhalian and his group found the electrons themselves had distinct shapes - which they dubbed “atomic orbitals” - that could not only be seen but controlled so the nanomaterials’ chemical and physical properties could be manipulated.

“The goal is the rational engineering of materials,” he said.

Arkansas, Pages 16 on 04/24/2011

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