Tate Williams

The ‘Fishing Expedition’ for Weird, World-Changing Materials

Tate Williams September 3, 2014

Originally published at Inside Philanthropy, August 19, 2014.

“Weird” is my own, non-technical descriptor for new quantum materials, which the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is hoping 12 researchers can cook up over the next five years. While the grantees are doing basic science, the eventual results could lead to world-changing tech applications.

Moore recently made a bundle of its Materials Synthesis Investigators awards, which will fund five-year stretches of research in which awardees will mix and match compounds to come up with new electronic and magnetic materials. Moore has selected 12 grantees to become investigators, each receiving between $1.5 million and $1.9 million, for a total of $20.6 million in funds.

Related: Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for Science Research

The investigator awards are part of Moore’s larger Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems initiative (EPiQS), which is sending $90 million toward overall research in quantum materials.

Quantum materials are substances that, in extreme temperatures or pressures, develop odd qualities including superconductivity and powerful forms of magnetism. Superconducting materials have had technological applications in electric motors and generators, digital circuits, particle detectors, and many other areas.

Despite the excitement many have about developing such new materials, we still don’t know that much about them. One reason is that research on quantum materials can often be something of a crapshoot. It requires exploratory research that may not have any commercial applications for years to come, but nonetheless could set in motion major changes in research tools, energy, and computing.

Much of materials research, in fact, involves a great deal of trial and error, and even discovery by mistake. Sometimes researchers develop a new compound while trying to synthesize something totally different.

For example, Emilia Morosan of Rice University is one of the Moore investigators, and described in the release of the award that some of the work will be like a “fishing expedition” in which she and her team will systematically poke around in whole families of materials that have been largely overlooked:

I think there’s a lot to be found at the bottom of the sea, in these unexplored places. It is a gamble because I don’t know if these compounds will form, and if they do, I don’t know if the physics will be interesting. But if I’m allowed some freedom to try, then I am confident we will learn a great deal and will find really interesting new physics.

All of this sounds like exactly what science philanthropy should be doing: Funding risky research and going where no market actor dares to go.

Stable Levitation of a magnet on a superconductor. By Julien Bobroff (user:Jubobroff), Frederic Bouquet (user:Fbouquet), LPS, Orsay, France [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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