Small changes, big impact

“How do you convince people there’s a big idea?”

According to Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in electrical and computer engineering, questions like these are fundamental to getting research support and funding. And researchers like Ma—whose work explores the spaces and interactions between individual atoms—know that understanding the quantum activities within Jack Ma Headshoteveryday materials is fundamental to achieving some really big ideas.

Through interdisciplinary collaboration, the study of small phenomena and the pursuit of big ideas, Ma plans to lead the Grainger Institute for Engineering’s newest impact area, Quantum Manufacturing, into one focused on reciprocal relationships and groundbreaking ideas. Ma says quantum manufacturing has the capacity to improve all existing impact areas, and he plans to grow research in this area by paying attention to those opportunities.

According to Ma, applying quantum theory to the real world requires four steps: research, development of materials, device creation, and application through manufacturing innovation. This is a broad process, encompassing and requiring vast expertise. Ma hopes partnerships across GIE’s impact areas can help spearhead access to this kind of variety.

“We definitely need collaboration for this center,” Ma says. “At all four levels, we need collaboration.”

Graphic depicting the quantum tunneling processes in Quantum Materials
Quantum researchers are able assess the probability of an electron moving through an energy barrier rather than up and over it. This knowledge allows them to strategically combine different materials, forming new quantum materials with elevated properties.

The quantum phenomenon, the quintessential aspect of this impact area, involves the probability of a single electron moving through an energy barrier “like a ghost,” says Ma, rather than climbing up and over the barrier.

Understanding this “tunneling” process will allow for new quantum materials, devices and fabrication methods to be developed. For example, when semiconductor junctions are made with two very different materials connected via quantum tunneling, they process electricity more efficiently, and their use, like in electric motors, makes the motors more efficient. Ma plans to work with a variety of researchers to create more of these advanced materials and devices for use in a wide array of applications.

“We are going to make a lot of new devices, and these devices are going to be useful in many ways,” Ma says. “Lots of things can be done.”

Ma is not only excited for the opportunity to lead this new impact area, but also to have direct access to other researchers connected to GIE. The ability to work together in these areas means the chance to implement these new technologies in communication, sensing, computing, energy, imaging and surveillance applications.

“We can use data science to help us design these materials and the structures,” Ma says. “Anything related to energy, to sensing, to biomedicine; there are so many ways we can work together.”

Overall, this impact area will allow for the growth of quantum manufacturing research while bringing these technologies to settings where the research can be utilized. Researchers across disciplines benefit from each other’s knowledge, helping solve grand challenges in engineering while giving individuals the support they need.

“We have college level support, and now we have [GIE],” Ma says. “That makes me feel so excited about the future. I think it’s going to be very successful.”

Author: Katie Amdahl