Reilly Cool Physics

16 March 2010

Since 2008 Dr David Reilly, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, has been heading up an experimental research group focusing on mesoscopic physics - the behaviour of matter on scales below a micron - where quantum mechanical effects become important. In the last year Reilly's research focus has been the establishment of a new quantum science laboratory from scratch. "We started with nothing but now have a fully fledged lab with capabilities comparable to the best in the world, putting Sydney on the map of experimental quantum science."

$400,000 fridge.
$400,000 fridge.

Taking delivery of a $400,000 refrigerator that threatened momentarily not to fit into the cargo lift, Reilly was still cool under pressure. The young researcher says that coaxing truly quantum behaviour from matter is a delicate undertaking as these effects can be exquisitely fragile. "Cooling our samples to 1/100th of a degree above absolute zero takes away the thermal energy that would otherwise blur out the physics for which we are searching."

Since it first kicked off in the 1980s mesoscopic physics has been a bridge between the macroscopic everyday world and the realm of microscopic objects like atoms and molecules when researchers started to fabricate structures small enough to see quantum effects. "Today we are able to create devices that are completely dominated by quantum mechanical behaviour," Reilly says, "We're now researching how to scale back up to the macroscopic world using controllable quantum systems as building blocks."

One of the key areas of this research is underpinning the multi-trillion dollar semiconductor industry. "The future of computing hinges on our ability to construct ever-smaller transistors and integrated circuits that function despite quantum effects. At the same time we know that an entire new paradigm of computation exists if we can directly harness quantum properties," states Reilly adding, "Building devices that work in the presence of both dirt and quantum effects will be a big challenge for mesoscopic physics in the next decade."

In the area of imaging and sensing, mesoscopic physics can also make significant contributions to biomedicine. At the University of Sydney, techniques using quantum control to explore new technologies for medical imaging using magnetic resonance are being researched. By manipulating electrons and nuclei in nanoparticles the group hopes to create new tools that can be used in the early detection of cancer.

Reilly says his team's vision is firstly one of basic physics i.e. learning the quantum rules of Nature at scales between macro and micro. "Applying this understanding to create new quantum technologies, from information processing devices to new medical imaging techniques, requires a long term plan. To have a major impact in this field and create technologies that actually make a difference requires highly sophisticated tools. A major aspect of our research is the building up of laboratories, with people and equipment, that will enable this transformational science."