IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency

09/18/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 09/18/2019 05:45

From Einstein's Idea to IAEA Headquarters: Experts Discuss Quantum Technology and Ion Beam Accelerators

In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed his most revolutionary idea that, instead of the longstanding theory of light being waves OR particles, light can have both wave AND particle properties. Applying this fundamental shift in perspective to all quantum particles, scientists developed quantum mechanics - the theory of how atoms and subatomic particles behave at the atomic level - that led to new ways to understand atoms . This sparked the first quantum revolution, resulting in the development of the personal computer, lasers, LED lighting, even GPS and the Internet.

Science has evolved radically since the turn of the 20th century: researchers are now using the deepest principles of quantum mechanics to achieve unprecedented levels of atomic precision and control to engineer quantum technology - electronics that are smaller, faster and more advanced than ever before. They are now developing new techniques for these quantum technologies using tools like ion beam accelerators to help usher in this second quantum revolution.

How scientists are doing this, what's next and the role played by accelerator-based techniques and the IAEA were topics discussed at a side event, 'Building Quantum Technology with Ion Beam Accelerators', held today on the margins of the IAEA's 63rd General Conference.

'This is an exciting area, and accelerators are helping us explore the future,' said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General and Head of the IAEA's Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, during her opening remarks at the side event. She highlighted how the IAEA supports research and development using accelerators, as well as its assistance to countries with setting up, operating and maintaining ion beam accelerators. 'There are currently six ongoing IAEA coordinated research projects related to ion beam accelerators, one of which focuses on improving materials for quantum technology.'

What's to come with quantum

What we can expect to see with quantum technology is secure optical fiber communication systems with information encoded on the quantum states of photons (light particles), ultra-high precision clocks, sensors for medical diagnostics, customized drug design using quantum computers, simulations of complex physical systems and more sophisticated machine learning.

'Physicist Paul Dirac commented in 1928 that even though we know the underlying physical laws for most of physics and the whole of chemistry, the exact application of these laws leads to equations much too complicated to be solvable,' said David Jamieson, Professor of Physics at the University of Melbourne. 'While large-scale quantum computers can help us solve these important - and previously impossible - problems, it will require first overcoming formidable scientific and technical obstacles. We will need to manipulate and interrogate single atoms with unprecedented precision. To do that on a large-scale, we still need the right materials and techniques.'

Effectively and precisely controlling these electrons and other atoms and subatomic particles requires physical systems that can handle these fragile quantum states. One of the few systems scientists have found are atomic defects - modified atomic structures - in certain materials.

Among the most promising materials for this is diamonds, explained Takeshi Ohshima, leader of the Quantum Sensing and Information Materials Research Group at the National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Services and Technology in Japan. When a carbon atom in the diamond's crystal lattice structure is replaced by a nitrogen atom, it also leaves a neighboring vacancy, which is then occupied by an unpaired electron. This 'nitrogen-vacancy defect' forms a quantum system that can be controlled and used for quantum technology.

'Diamonds are more than just beautiful gemstones; they can also act as quantum sensors. The nitrogen-vacancy defect can interact with a given environment and release light that reveals the temperature, magnetic field and electric field of microscopic cellular structures,' Ohshima said. 'This can help us, for example, detect and understand how genes are expressed with diseases such as cancer, and larger crystals can also detect the extremely weak magnetic fields in the brain to help us track its function.'

These types of defects can be created with tools such as ion beam accelerators. Accelerator-based techniques using high-energy ions can change atomic structures in materials that allow scientists to control the behavior of single atoms, such as the spin of their electrons or nuclei. Learn more about this here.

'Accelerator-based techniques present a powerful tool for engineering the kind of 'single photon sources' needed for one of the most exciting innovations on the horizon: a 'quantum internet',' said Paolo Olivero, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Turin in Italy, who spoke about the role of nuclear science for safer global communication and quantum cryptography. 'This internet would enable intrinsically safe communication among countries and institutions across the world by encrypting information using quantum states.'

The IAEA has been coordinating research with leading, multi-disciplinary scientists to develop novel ways to use accelerator-based ion beam techniques for creating and characterizing material for quantum technology. This includes working with theoretical and experimental data to tackle major challenges in the field. The results of this project will also be made available to further support research in the quantum science community. Learn more about this IAEA-coordinated research.

'New materials, equipment and techniques mean new solutions for building quantum technology. With accelerator-based techniques, new features in materials can be created, for example, that could be individually programmed for computing and sensors, as well as for secure communication systems,' said Aliz Simon, a nuclear physicist at the IAEA who oversees the IAEA coordinated research project.

Using quantum for fusion energy

With the power of quantum on the horizon, researchers are already looking for ways to use these new capabilities to deepen our fundamental understanding of science, including fusion. Fusion is the process of two atomic nuclei fusing together and releasing an almost endless supply of clean energy.

'Quantum's ability to process extremely complex information faster and in greater detail than current technology would open the door for more effectively simulating processes such as fusion,' said Thomas Schenkel, Division Director of Accelerator Technology and Applied Physics Division in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

These simulations can help scientists test and understand how fusion could work with different conditions and materials. 'This understanding can provide valuable insights into how to engineer and build machines capable of achieving, harnessing and sustaining a fusion reaction - a challenge toward which there has been steady progress internationally,' he said.