Quantum science project Station X awarded support from Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Tech Fund

Tuesday, May 11, 2021
by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

New quantum materials that promise to propel the communications of the future, an AI-driven search to uncover the fundamental laws of physics, and a project to build biomolecular motors have been selected for funding through the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund.

The three projects, led by faculty teams from across the sciences and engineering, aim to pioneer new discoveries with the potential to transform entire fields of inquiry and propel innovation. The projects were selected following a competitive application process in which proposals were evaluated for their potential to accelerate progress on substantial challenges through strides in the development of knowledge and technological capabilities.

“These are profoundly significant projects that have the potential to take both our fundamental knowledge and technical capabilities to new, exciting levels,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering. “Rather than iterate, these proposals aim to make major advances in a discipline, and have the capacity to shift the conversation entirely.”

The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund spurs the exploration of ideas and approaches that can profoundly enable progress in science or engineering. Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive officer of Google and former executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1976 and served as a Princeton trustee from 2004 to 2008. He and his wife, Wendy, a businesswoman and philanthropist, created the fund in 2009. Including this year’s three awards, the fund has supported 27 research projects at Princeton. 

Station X: An extreme environment for quantum discoveries

Drawing on recent discoveries in quantum materials, a team from the departments of electrical and computer engineering, physics and chemistry will build a new site for quantum exploration that features some of the most extreme conditions on Earth — including ultra-low temperatures, ultra-low and ultra-high pressures, and strong magnetic fields.

Technologies that utilize quantum properties could unlock new capabilities in computing, communications and many other areas. Whereas much research has focused on exotic quantum properties in metals and semi-metals, few studies have looked for quantum behaviors in electrical insulators — materials in which electrons cannot move freely — primarily due to the lack of methods for observing these properties in insulators. Recent work by teams at Princeton have detected intriguing examples of quantum phases in insulators and semi-conductors, but exploring quantum behaviors in these systems requires specialized conditions and new experimental approaches.

To make transformative discoveries in the emerging area of quantum insulators, a team led by Assistant Professor of Physics Sanfeng Wu, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Leslie Schoop, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Mansour Shayegan, and Senior Research Scholar in Electrical and Computer Engineering Loren Pfeiffer will build an experimental research facility in Princeton’s Jadwin Hall called Station X.

The station will house equipment with which to create extreme temperatures, pressures, magnetic fields, materials purity and other conditions that enable the researchers to evaluate materials with hidden quantum phases. The team will develop advanced measurement systems that combine electronics and optics to provide an unprecedented platform that can explore the synthesis and measurements of a wide range of quantum materials. This project, combining Princeton’s expertise in chemistry, engineering and physics, will ensure a leading role for Princeton in the emergence of new areas of quantum science.