From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH): “A new quantum component made from graphene”

From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH)

11.3.22
Felix Würsten

For the first time, ETH Zürich researchers have been able to make a superconducting component from graphene that is quantum coherent and sensitive to magnetic fields. This step opens up interesting prospects for fundamental research.

Less than 20 years ago, Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim first created two-dimensional crystals consisting of just one layer of carbon atoms. Known as graphene, this material has had quite a career since then. Due to its exceptional strength, graphene is used today to reinforce products such as tennis rackets, car tyres or aircraft wings. But it is also an interesting subject for fundamental research, as physicists keep discovering new, astonishing phenomena that have not been observed in other materials.

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Two-​dimensional graphene is an exciting object of study for physicists. ETH researchers were able to build a superconducting element from twisted graphene bilayers for the first time. (Photograph: Adobe Stock)

The right twist

Bilayer graphene crystals, in which the two atomic layers are slightly rotated relative to each other, are particularly interesting for researchers. About one year ago, a team of researchers led by Klaus Ensslin and Thomas Ihn at ETH Zürich’s Laboratory for Solid State Physics was able to demonstrate that twisted graphene could be used to create Josephson junctions, the fundamental building blocks of superconducting devices.

Based on this work, researchers were now able to produce the first superconducting quantum interference device, or SQUID, from twisted graphene for the purpose of demonstrating the interference of superconducting quasiparticles. Conventional SQUIDs are already being used, for instance in medicine, geology and archaeology. Their sensitive sensors are capable of measuring even the smallest changes in magnetic fields. However, SQUIDs work only in conjunction with superconducting materials, so they require cooling with liquid helium or nitrogen when in operation.

In quantum technology, SQUIDs can host quantum bits (qubits); that is, as elements for carrying out quantum operations. “SQUIDs are to superconductivity what transistors are to semiconductor technology – the fundamental building blocks for more complex circuits,” Ensslin explains.

The spectrum is widening

The graphene SQUIDs created by doctoral student Elías Portolés are not more sensitive than their conventional counterparts made from aluminium and also have to be cooled down to temperatures lower than 2 degrees above absolute zero. “So it’s not a breakthrough for SQUID technology as such,” Ensslin says. However, it does broaden graphene’s application spectrum significantly. “Five years ago, we were already able to show that graphene could be used to build single-electron transistors. Now we’ve added superconductivity,” Ensslin says.

What is remarkable is that the graphene’s behavior can be controlled in a targeted manner by biasing an electrode. Depending on the voltage applied, the material can be insulating, conducting or superconducting. “The rich spectrum of opportunities offered by solid-state physics is at our disposal,” Ensslin says.

Also interesting is that the two fundamental building blocks of a semiconductor (transistor) and a superconductor (SQUID) can now be combined in a single material. This makes it possible to build novel control operations. “Normally, the transistor is made from silicon and the SQUID from aluminium,” Ensslin says. “These are different materials requiring different processing technologies.”

An extremely challenging production process

Superconductivity in graphene was discovered by an MIT research group five years ago, yet there are only a dozen or so experimental groups worldwide that look at this phenomenon. Even fewer are capable of converting superconducting graphene into a functioning component.

The challenge is that scientists have to carry out several delicate work steps one after the other: First, they have to align the graphene sheets at the exact right angle relative to each other. The next steps then include connecting electrodes and etching holes. If the graphene were to be heated up, as happens often during cleanroom processing, the two layers re-align the twist angle vanishes. “The entire standard semiconductor technology has to be readjusted, making this an extremely challenging job,” Portolés says.

The vision of hybrid systems

Ensslin is thinking one step ahead. Quite a variety of different qubit technologies are currently being assessed, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For the most part, this is being done by various research groups within the National Center of Competence in Quantum Science and Technology (QSIT). If scientists succeed in coupling two of these systems using graphene, it might be possible to combine their benefits as well. “The result would be two different quantum systems on the same crystal,” Ensslin says.

This would also generate new possibilities for research on superconductivity. “With these components, we might be better able to understand how superconductivity in graphene comes about in the first place,” he adds. “All we know today is that there are different phases of superconductivity in this material, but we do not yet have a theoretical model to explain them.”

Science paper:
Nature Nanotechnology

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ETH Zurich campus

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH) is a public research university in the city of Zürich, Switzerland. Founded by the Swiss Federal Government in 1854 with the stated mission to educate engineers and scientists, the school focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Like its sister institution The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne](CH) , it is part of The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain (ETH Domain)) , part of the The Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research [EAER][Eidgenössisches Departement für Wirtschaft, Bildung und Forschung] [Département fédéral de l’économie, de la formation et de la recherche] (CH).

The university is an attractive destination for international students thanks to low tuition fees of 809 CHF per semester, PhD and graduate salaries that are amongst the world’s highest, and a world-class reputation in academia and industry. There are currently 22,200 students from over 120 countries, of which 4,180 are pursuing doctoral degrees. In the 2021 edition of the QS World University Rankings ETH Zürich is ranked 6th in the world and 8th by the Times Higher Education World Rankings 2020. In the 2020 QS World University Rankings by subject it is ranked 4th in the world for engineering and technology (2nd in Europe) and 1st for earth & marine science.

As of November 2019, 21 Nobel laureates, 2 Fields Medalists, 2 Pritzker Prize winners, and 1 Turing Award winner have been affiliated with the Institute, including Albert Einstein. Other notable alumni include John von Neumann and Santiago Calatrava. It is a founding member of the IDEA League and the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) and a member of the CESAER network.

ETH Zürich was founded on 7 February 1854 by the Swiss Confederation and began giving its first lectures on 16 October 1855 as a polytechnic institute (eidgenössische polytechnische schule) at various sites throughout the city of Zurich. It was initially composed of six faculties: architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, forestry, and an integrated department for the fields of mathematics, natural sciences, literature, and social and political sciences.

It is locally still known as Polytechnikum, or simply as Poly, derived from the original name eidgenössische polytechnische schule, which translates to “federal polytechnic school”.

ETH Zürich is a federal institute (i.e., under direct administration by the Swiss government), whereas The University of Zürich [Universität Zürich ] (CH) is a cantonal institution. The decision for a new federal university was heavily disputed at the time; the liberals pressed for a “federal university”, while the conservative forces wanted all universities to remain under cantonal control, worried that the liberals would gain more political power than they already had. In the beginning, both universities were co-located in the buildings of the University of Zürich.

From 1905 to 1908, under the presidency of Jérôme Franel, the course program of ETH Zürich was restructured to that of a real university and ETH Zürich was granted the right to award doctorates. In 1909 the first doctorates were awarded. In 1911, it was given its current name, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. In 1924, another reorganization structured the university in 12 departments. However, it now has 16 departments.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form The Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

Reputation and ranking

ETH Zürich is ranked among the top universities in the world. Typically, popular rankings place the institution as the best university in continental Europe and ETH Zürich is consistently ranked among the top 1-5 universities in Europe, and among the top 3-10 best universities of the world.

Historically, ETH Zürich has achieved its reputation particularly in the fields of chemistry, mathematics and physics. There are 32 Nobel laureates who are associated with ETH Zürich, the most recent of whom is Richard F. Heck, awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2010. Albert Einstein is perhaps its most famous alumnus.

In 2018, the QS World University Rankings placed ETH Zürich at 7th overall in the world. In 2015, ETH Zürich was ranked 5th in the world in Engineering, Science and Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and University of Cambridge (UK). In 2015, ETH Zürich also ranked 6th in the world in Natural Sciences, and in 2016 ranked 1st in the world for Earth & Marine Sciences for the second consecutive year.

In 2016, Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranked ETH Zürich 9th overall in the world and 8th in the world in the field of Engineering & Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, Princeton University, University of Cambridge(UK), Imperial College London(UK) and University of Oxford(UK) .

In a comparison of Swiss universities by swissUP Ranking and in rankings published by CHE comparing the universities of German-speaking countries, ETH Zürich traditionally is ranked first in natural sciences, computer science and engineering sciences.

In the survey CHE Excellence Ranking on the quality of Western European graduate school programs in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, ETH Zürich was assessed as one of the three institutions to have excellent programs in all the considered fields, the other two being Imperial College London (UK) and the University of Cambridge (UK), respectively.