Developing transferrable skills through the exploration of quantum magnetic materials

Access to neutron beams enables graduate students to conduct experiments in quantum magnetism—and thereby to develop advanced experimental and computational skills that can be readily applied to future careers in science and industry.

Source: Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (CNBC)
Image: Young Canadians are using quantum materials research using neutron beams as launch pads for their careers

Although today’s headlines are quick to tout the latest scientific discoveries and the newest smart devices, they rarely mention the thousands of Science and Technology (S&T) students who graduate from Canadian universities every year. Many of these graduates are the very same individuals who will be dominating the science and industry headlines of the future, thanks in large part to their training at Canadian universities.

According to the recent report by Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, the interweaving of science with teaching at Canadian universities “is among the key national advantages of a vibrant research ecosystem.” A good part of the reason for this is the fact that “graduates will move ahead with a spirit of adventure and a confidence that they can attack any problem no matter how difficult.”

Exploring quantum magnetic materials is perhaps one of the most relevant and exciting ways for S&T students to build confidence and cultivate this desire to break new ground. Indeed, knowing the atomic-level magnetism of a quantum material is often vital to understanding that material’s fundamental properties, before they can be used in breakthrough technologies in energy and computing. What’s more, many of these materials continue to hold mysteries that the scientific community is anxious to solve.

Studying quantum magnetism requires students to develop advanced experimental and computational skills—skills that can then be transferred to other scientific and technological endeavours. In this way, Canada’s quantum magnetism students are making real contributions towards bringing new understanding not only to these complex materials, but also to many areas of Canadian science and industry.

Martin LeBlanc

Martin LeBlanc is a PhD student at Memorial University.

Martin LeBlanc is one PhD student who is dedicated to researching quantum magnetic materials. Originally from New Brunswick, Martin completed an undergraduate degree in physics at Université de Moncton. From there, he was attracted to Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he now has the opportunity to study with Martin Plumer, a professor of physics who formerly worked for Seagate developing magnetic recording materials for their computer hard drives.

Today, Plumer guides students like Martin LeBlanc in using computational methods to study a key quantum magnetic material: iridium manganese alloy (IrMn3), the material used in most computer read heads (i.e., the component that reads the data from a hard drive). However, since today’s hard drives can deteriorate with significant changes in temperature, hard drive manufacturers would like to develop a substitute for IrMn3 that performs well over a wider temperature range.

The difficulty in this work is that scientists don’t yet fully understand how IrMn3’s atomic-level magnetism enables it to perform its read head function efficiently. Without this knowledge, they can give little guidance on how to design a better material.

It was this challenge that led Martin Leblanc to pursue quantum magnetic materials research—an area of research that relies heavily on neutron beam data, since neutrons are magnetic and can therefore help reveal a material’s magnetic properties.

“I found the prospect of filling knowledge gaps that could lead to more resilient computer memory enticing,” Martin says. “I have really enjoyed the computational aspects of modelling materials, and being able to compare our results with real data from neutron beam measurements, to learn about how they work.”

To help fill this knowledge gap, Leblanc developed a computational model of IrMn3 and then travelled to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the U.S. to learn how to do neutron beam experiments on this material. “Working with experimentalists helps to see what’s important to focus on, to ensure that our theory work is relevant and useful,” says Martin. “Now we’re working on the data interpretation to see if our hypothesis about how the material works is correct.”

Combining his calculations with real experimental data is what Martin enjoys most, and he wants to continue applying these skills in his future career. He should have ample opportunity to do so, as such aptitude is vital in many industries. For instance, automotive and aerospace parts manufacturing calls on researchers to combine the computational modelling data of a metal’s microscopic properties with data from measurements obtained using neutrons and other experimental tools.

These skills are helping to make Canada a leader in emerging industries as well. Martin points to a recent graduate from Plumer’s research group who is now applying these same skills to develop electrical materials at Solace Power, a Newfoundland-based research and development firm that licenses its technologies for wirelessly providing power to electronic devices like drones and wearable military gear.

Jennifer Sears

Another young scientist with an interest in researching quantum materials is Jennifer Sears, a new graduate of the University of Toronto with a PhD in physics. Like Martin, Jennifer is confident in the wide applicability of her skills, which she continues to develop as a post-doctoral researcher in Germany. “I’m developing a toolset to understand materials that can be applied across lots of industries,” she says.

Jennifer calls her work on quantum materials “blue sky research” because this class of materials might very well hold the potential for breakthrough technologies in areas such as electronics. But scientists still have a lot to learn about the fundamentals of these materials before such ground-breaking applications can be designed—and key aspects of this understanding can only be obtained through neutron beam experiments.

“While I was a grad student, most of my experiments used neutron beams,” explains Jennifer, noting that the skills she gained while studying quantum materials are transferable to the study of many other materials as well.

For instance, while at the University of Toronto, she had an opportunity to apply her skills in neutron beam measurements in a collaboration with scientists from CanmetMATERIALS in Hamilton, Ontario, who are developing a way to recycle waste heat from car engines back into useful electrical energy.

Today, Jennifer’s research stint abroad is preparing her even further for a successful scientific career, whether in academia, government, or industry.

Alannah Hallas

Dr. Alannah Hallas is a post-doctoral researcher at Rice University in Texas.

Alannah Hallas is another up-and-coming scientist in the field of quantum materials research. Already, she has an impressive record of scientific publications and honours to her name—but back in high school, she never would have imagined that she would one day be pursuing research in physics. “I thought physics research was all theory; I didn’t know about the experimental side.”

While she was studying math and chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Winnipeg, chemistry professor Chris Wiebe introduced her to materials research and gave her the experience of visiting a large science facility that produces neutron beams to probe materials.

“I loved the hands-on aspect of doing experiments on materials,” says Alannah. “And I benefitted from having strong collaborations between my university-based lab and large facilities early on in my training.” Notably, neutron facilities played an important role in Alannah’s research trajectory. “I found that the neutron beam community is very supportive of young scientists,” she recalls.

After completing her Master’s degree in chemistry under Wiebe, Alannah went on to McMaster University to pursue a PhD in physics. There, she continued her research on quantum materials under the co-supervision of professors Graeme Luke and Bruce Gaulin, as well as in continued collaboration with Wiebe. She conducted research at several large science facilities in the U.S. and Canada, enabling her to access a range of probes to study materials, including neutrons, muons, and x‑rays. She even visited facilities in Japan to learn cutting-edge techniques for preparing new materials for her experiments.

Now, having recently completed her PhD, Alannah is working as a post-doctoral researcher at Rice University in Texas—an opportunity that enables her to broaden her experience while collaborating with key scientists in her field.

Neutron beams and the future of quantum magnetic materials research in Canada

Although Martin, Jennifer, and Alannah all have promising careers ahead of them, they are concerned that Canada might not be able to maintain its leadership role in the field of materials research using neutron beams after the facility at Chalk River Laboratories closes and Canada’s agreement with ORNL expires, both slated to take effect in 2018.

Like many in the neutron scattering community, Martin LeBlanc and Martin Plumer are experts in their area of focus, but not necessarily in the neutron beam techniques they rely on for their research. For this knowledge they turn to neutron beam specialists, and therefore they would benefit greatly from a domestic hub of expertise that could help them to access neutron beam facilities when needed.

Jennifer and Alannah would like to return to Canada one day to bring back the skills and knowledge they’ve gleaned from world experts in their respective lines of research. With that in mind, they have a keen interest in what Canada will do about securing access to neutron beams for the future.

“Even though Canada is a relatively small country in terms of population, it has historically led in neutron scattering,” says Alannah. “In fact, Canada’s only two Nobel prizes in physics have both resulted from our large science facilities: Chalk River Laboratories and SNOLAB. We need to invest in this area; it would be tragic if we lost it.”