Building the future one atom at a time

By Kenneth Macdonald
BBC Scotland Science Correspondent

Media caption,
Physicists at St Andrews University are creating new materials unknown in nature

Physicists at the University of St Andrews have begun using a unique machine to create materials that are completely unknown in nature.

The device, the only one if its kind in the UK, is the centrepiece of a new centre for designer quantum materials.

It will help create the next generation of electronic devices, one layer of atoms at a time.

There is no doubt that it looks fantastic.

It fills an entire laboratory. Its stainless steel tubes gleam. Its lights flash.

Its valves open and close and its computer monitors flicker.

Despite appearances it is science fact, not science fiction.

But what is it exactly? The answer trips off Dr Peter Wahl's tongue.

"This is a reactive oxide molecular beam epitaxy system," he says.

Happily for the rest of us he can also explain what that means.

"It is an instrument which allows us to build materials a single atomic layer at a time.

"So we can combine different materials, stacking them on top of each other, and basically changing the material with each individual layer."

To make these custom-engineered "supermaterials" the system uses high vacuums and temperatures.

Talk of the quantum world may bring to mind ideas like Schrodinger's Cat, which was supposedly alive and dead at the same time.

Creating quantum materials is a less intimidating concept.

It means manipulating things at their most basic level - in this case, atom by atom.

Dr Wahl, a reader in the school of physics and astronomy, makes it sound even less intimidating by invoking children's plastic bricks.

It is, he says, like playing Lego with atoms: putting two seemingly boring materials together as extremely thin films to make new stuff that's very interesting indeed.

"One relatively large field of potential applications for these materials is in what's called spintronics, where the spin of the electron suddenly becomes important and one can exploit it for new device functionalities."

Other potential applications include super-efficient energy distribution and high performance sensors.

It could lead to electronic devices that are a single atom thick.

Building exotic, designer, quantum materials does not come cheap.

The new centre represents an investment of £2m by the university, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA).

That's on top of previous investments of more than £4m by SUPA, the Scottish Funding Council and the university.

In return, St Andrews has created a facility that is unique in these islands to create materials that have never been seen before.