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Nanomaterials for future quantum technologies

Quantum technology (QT) applies quantum mechanical properties such as quantum entanglement, quantum superposition, and No-cloning theorem to quantum systems such as atoms, ions, electrons, photons, or molecules.


Quantum technology has many Quantum applications that can be classified in three major classes. Quantum computers shall bring power of massive parallel processing, equivalent of supercomputer to a single chip. Quantum communication refers to a quantum information exchange that uses photons as quantum information carriers over optical fibre or free-space channels.


Quantum Sensing exploit high sensitivity of quantum systems to external disturbances to develop highly sensitive sensors. They can measure Quantities such as time, magnetic and electrical fields, inertial forces, temperature, and many others. They employ quantum systems such as NV centers, atomic vapors, Rydberg atoms, and trapped ions.


As we are entering the Quantum Age, Researchers have turned to quantum materials. Quantum materials are broadly defined as all those versatile materials platforms that allow us to explore emergent quantum phenomena as well as their potential uses in future technology. Quantum materials is a broad term to put under the same umbrella materials that present strong electronic correlations and/or some type of electronic order (superconducting, magnetic order), or materials whose electronic properties are linked to non-generic quantum effects, such as topological insulators, Dirac electron systems such as graphene, as well as systems whose collective properties are governed by genuinely quantum behavior, such as ultra-cold atoms , cold excitons, polaritons, etc.


Solid-state devices for quantum technologies have, to this point, predominantly been designed with bulk materials as their constituents. Researchers are now considering how nanomaterials (i.e. materials with intrinsic quantum confinement) may offer inherent advantages over conventional materials for Quantum devices.


Nanotechnology deals with the understanding, control, and manufacture of matter in the nanoscale regime, usually between 1 nm to 100 nm, and exploiting them for a useful application. At this length scale, unique properties and phenomena arise as a result of increased surface-to-volume ratio and dominance of quantum mechanical effects. The field has opened up opportunities to design, manipulate and control structures and devices at the nanometer scale down to the molecular and even atomic level, offering improved or new functionalities.



With the rapid advancement of the field, many engineered nanomaterials are being synthesized while new materials are discovered. There are metals, ceramics, polymers, those based on carbon and even composites, of different forms and shapes. Depending on the dimensional characteristics, they may be zero-dimensional (0-D), where all the dimensions are less than 100 nm, e.g.: fullerenes, quantum dots; one dimensional (1-D) as nanotubes, nanorods or nanowires, e.g. CNT; two dimensional (2-D) as nano sheet, nanofilms or nanocoatings, e.g. graphene; three dimensional (3-D) wherein bulk materials consist of nanostructured grains. Some of them are already produced at an industrial scale, e.g.: carbon nanotube, titanium oxide, silver.


Nanomaterials find application in cosmetics, healthcare, air purification, and environmental preservation applications, among others. Nanoparticles are being developed to deliver drugs to damaged arteries to fight cardiovascular disease and also to help in the transportation of chemotherapy drugs directly to cancerous growths.


Nanomaterials for Quantum technologies

Quantum information technologies are realized by using nanomaterials for a variety of functions that contribute to the quantum operations within these systems. Nanomaterials can be used to create ion traps, cavity QEDs, superconducting circuits and optical systems to help the passage of quantum information throughout a computing system.


Quantum photonics is a broad area which encompasses everything from spintronic devices to quantum wires used in waveguides. Quantum photonics works when nanomaterials absorb a specific frequency of light, which causes the electrons and holes in the material to recombine through coulombic interactions. This is known as an exciton.


Quantum electromechanical systems (QEMS) are nano-fabricated systems that use a series of transducers operating at the quantum limit. The quantum operation limit creates a highly sensitive system that is usable for both microscopy systems or for detecting the magnetic moment of a single spin.


Carbon nanomaterials for future quantum technologies

An exceptionally large grant will allow a team of Empa researchers to work on an ambitious project over the next ten years: The Werner Siemens Foundation (WSS) is supporting Empa’s CarboQuant project with 15 million Swiss francs. The project aims to lay the foundations for novel quantum technologies that may even operate at room temperature – in contrast to current technologies, most of which require cooling to near absolute zero.


“With this project we are taking a big step into the unknown,” says Oliver Gröning who coordinates the project. “Thanks to the partnership with the Werner Siemens Foundation, we can now move much further away from the safe shore of existing knowledge than would be possible in our ‘normal’ day-to-day research. We feel a little like Christopher Columbus and are now looking beyond the horizon for something completely new.”


The expedition into the unknown now being undertaken by Empa researchers Pascal Ruffieux, Oliver Gröning and Gabriela Borin-Barin under the lead of Roman Fasel was preceded by twelve years of intensive research activity. The researchers from Empa’s nanotech@surfaces laboratory, headed by Fasel, regularly published their work in renowned journals such as Nature, Science and Angewandte Chemie.


In 2010, the team succeeded in synthetizing graphene strips, so-called nanoribbons, from smaller precursor molecules for the first time. With their novel synthesis approach, the Empa team can now produce carbon nanomaterials with atomic precision, thereby precisely defining their quantum properties. Graphene is considered a possible building material for computers of the future; it is made of carbon and resembles the familiar graphite. The material is, however, just one atomic layer thin and promises faster, more powerful computer architectures than the semiconductor materials known today.


In 2020, they first reported on the effect they had discovered (“Joined nano-triangles pave the way to magnetic carbon materials”) – and followed up with a more refined paper in October 2021 (“Exotic magnetic states on the nanoscale”): Now, using their carbon nanomaterials, they had demonstrated for the first time a physical effect that the future Nobel Prize winner in physics F.D.M. Haldane had predicted nearly 40 years ago: spin fractionalization. This fractionalization only forms when many spins (i.e., fundamental quantum magnets) can be brought into a common, coherent quantum superposition. Empa researchers have achieved just that in their precisely synthesized molecular chains.


CarboQuant is intended to build on these special spin effects in graphene nanoribbons. Gröning says, “So far, we see spin states at very specific locations in the nanoribbons, which we can generate and detect. The next step will be to manipulate these spin states deliberately, for example, to reverse the spin at one end of the nanoribbon and thus elicit a corresponding reaction at the other end.”


“We have to get the components out of the protected environment of the high vacuum and prepare them in such a way that even in ambient air and at room temperature, they do not disintegrate. Only then can we equip the nanoribbons with contacts – which is the prerequisite for practical applications without the need of an elaborate infrastructure,” Gröning says.


The journey into this unknown, new world will in any case be very demanding. Already the initial phase – the entry ticket, if you wish –, the control and time-resolved measurement of spin states, requires a completely new set of equipment that the researchers will have to develop and build. “We need to combine the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), in which we synthesize the nanoribbons and look at their structure, with ultra-fast measurements of their electronic and magnetic properties,” Gröning explains. That can be done by high-frequency electrical signals at high magnetic fields and by irradiation with very short, extremely intense laser pulses.


To achieve this, two new measurement systems are being set up at Empa, which will also play key roles in the team’s other research projects and which are co-funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the European Research Council (ERC).


This would give Empa researchers something very unique to work with: a quantum effect that is stable and can be manipulated even at room temperature or requiring just moderate cooling. That could be a silver bullet for building entirely new kinds of quantum computers.


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