Martin Mourigal receives NSF CAREER award for quantum materials research

Martin Mourigal receives NSF CAREER award for quantum materials research

School of Physics Assistant Professor Martin Mourigal has won a five-year NSF CAREER grant for research on quantum materials. The materials present a unique opportunity to understand the fundamental properties of the universe while forming the building blocks for new devices that could revolutionize how we harvest and control charge, light, heat, and information.

School of Physics Assistant Professor Martin Mourigal has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for research on so-called frustrated quantum materials. The $621,772 funding will support the research and education efforts of Mourigal’s team for the next five years.

From wood and glass to magnets and superconductors, the behavior of materials is rooted in the quantum mechanical interaction between their atomic-scale constituents: nuclei and electrons. Although the laws of the quantum world are known, predicting the macroscopic properties of materials from their atomic structure is a formidable challenge.

Entanglement is a central quantum phenomenon at the origin of chemical bonds in materials. It usually averages to zero on human length and time scales.

This is not the case with quantum materials such as superconductors, exotic metals, or frustrated quantum magnets. In such systems, the concerted behavior of many electrons propels quantum entanglement beyond the atomic-scale.

Thus, quantum materials present a unique opportunity to understand the fundamental properties of the universe while forming the building blocks to fabricate future quantum devices that may revolutionize the harvest and control of charge, light, heat, and information.

“This CAREER award will not only support my team’s efforts in the area of quantum materials; it will also support the training of the future quantum workforce by involving graduate and undergraduate students and high-school teachers.”

Mourigal’s team focuses on frustrated magnetic materials. In these materials, spins – which are atomic-scale compass needles attached to electrons – display collective quantum dynamics despite simple properties as individuals.

“By designing and studying magnetic materials in which spins occupy periodic lattices with triangular patterns, we frustrate individual spins,” Mourigal says. “Our goal is to suppress their tendency to align with their neighbors. Instead we seek to promote cooperation between spins and obtain richer collective dynamics. This is a promising route to bootstrap entanglement beyond the atomic-scale.”

Mourigal adds: “Our research is multidisciplinary, in our labs at Georgia Tech, we work on preparing and perfecting new materials and measuring their properties at very low temperatures, while simultaneously conducting a lot of theoretical calculations and analyzing large quantities of data”.

A recurring tool in Mourigal’s approach is neutron scattering, a specialized technique that can be performed only at major government-run facilities such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in nearby Tennessee, and the NIST Center for Neutron Research, in Maryland.

“Neutrons are an incredible tool to study magnetic materials because neutrons penetrate deep inside our samples and can tell us where spins are, where they point, and if they dance to the quantum tempo,” Mourigal says. But there is a catch, Mourigal adds: “Neutron sources tend to be relatively faint, at least compared to photon and electron sources.   Therefore our experiments require large samples, often in the form of crystals.”

Such crystals can be hard to come by. Mourigal says the NSF CAREER award will allow his team to strengthen collaborations with U.S.-based research groups with expertise and tools to grow large, high-quality crystals of quantum magnetic materials.

“I am very grateful to the NSF for its support,” Mourigal says. “This CAREER award will not only support my team’s efforts in the area of quantum materials; it will also support the training of the future quantum workforce by involving graduate and undergraduate students and high-school teachers.”

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