Searching for quantum weirdness in interactions between light and matter

May 28, 2020
By: Robert Sanders, Media relations
portraits of Lanzara and Orenstein
Physicists Alessandra Lanzara and Joseph Orenstein are two of the 20 scientists awarded grants from the Moore Foundation to explore new materials in search of emergent quantum phenomena.

Quantum physicists Alessandra Lanzara and Joseph Orenstein have been awarded $1.6 million each over the next five years to poke and probe new types of materials to see what unusual phenomena pop out.

The unrestricted grants from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will allow them “to pursue innovative, risky research with a potential for significant advances in the concepts and methods used to investigate quantum materials,” according to an announcement today (Thursday, May 28) from the foundation. 

Lanzara and Orenstein, UC Berkeley professors of physics and faculty scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, are among 20 recipients of grants from the foundation’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) Initiative to conduct experiments on new materials.

Both researchers are interested in how light interacts with new types of materials to change their properties and how light can be used to probe those properties at the scale of individual atoms.

Lanzara focuses on how to harness light to design new topologies and new metastable phases in quantum materials. To study these new materials, she has pioneered various spectroscopic techniques, including angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES), which is used to observe electrons in solids.

She and her lab are developing a new microscope that combines photoelectron spectroscopy and imaging to simultaneously probe the self-organization of electronic heterogeneity with a resolution better than 50 nanometers. This novel experimental approach will provide a new understanding of quantum materials and disorder and may open a route to unprecedented applications of these materials. 

Orenstein has developed various innovative techniques, including time-domain terahertz spectroscopy, to probe high-temperature superconductors, new topological materials, multiferroics and frustrated magnets. 

He will use these techniques to determine how the quantum geometry of electronic states in these materials affects the quantum behavior of electrons in the materials. The findings could have application in photonics and optoelectronics. He also plans to develop a next-generation, time-resolved optical microscope with a spatial resolution of about 100 nanometers to push far-field optics to its ultimate limits.

The grants announced today are the second set of EPiQS grants for experimental materials research awarded by the Moore Foundation since 2013. The initiative supports an integrated research program that includes not only experiments on new quantum materials, but also synthesis of new materials and theory, all of which involve interdisciplinary research in physics, chemistry and materials science. A second set of grants for materials synthesis and theory was announced earlier this year.

Among the new grantees are investigators who will advance experimental probes of quantum states in materials, elucidate emergent phenomena observed in systems with strong electron interactions, investigate light-induced states of matter, explore the vast space of two-dimensional layered structures and illuminate the role of quantum entanglement in exotic systems, such as quantum spin liquids.

“The first cohort of EPiQS experimental investigators made advances that changed the landscape of quantum materials, and I expect no less from this second cohort. Emergent phenomena appear when a large number of constituents interact strongly, whether these constituents are electrons in materials or the brilliant scientists trying to crack the mysteries of materials,” said Dušan Pejaković, director of the EPiQS initiative.