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Sweating the Small Stuff At UA Little Rock

4 min read

Inside several labs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, physics professors Gregory Guisbiers and Tansel Karabacak conduct quantum research, an evolving field that analyzes the properties and behaviors of subatomic particles. The research aims to create new materials for industries including medicine, computing, construction and engineering.

“The potential benefits of quantum materials to energy, quality-of-life and the economy are staggering,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. “The astounding effects of quantum mechanics will enable materials properties and functions that seem like science fiction today.”

In other words, quantum research is super important (but hard to explain). And those who hear about it most likely associate it with major science and technology institutions, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology.

It may then be surprising to learn that UA Little Rock has been involved in such research for years. In 2000, it began hiring faculty for nano-materials research, and in 2006, it created the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences, described by UA Little Rock as “one of the premier nanotechnology research laboratories in the region.”

“UALR is a hidden gem,” Karabacak, the assistant physics professor, told me on a recent visit to the nano research labs where the professors and students use pulse laser ablation, hot water treatments and sputtering systems to eject subatomic particles from the atoms of elements, like tellurium or selenium. Such particles can form new structures, described as dots, needles or other spindly formations.

“The past two decades, UALR has become really strong in material science,” Karabacak said. “We have a very good record of getting grants and doing cutting-edge research in material science.”

Recently, UA Little Rock, along with UA Pine Bluff and UA Fayetteville, received a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further cement quantum research in Arkansas. UA Pine Bluff, one of three historically Black colleges and universities to receive the grant, will establish an integrated research and education program in quantum materials and devices, creating the first-of-its kind quantum center in the South.

UA Little Rock will receive $750,000 to expand its quantum materials research, which will be shared with UA Fayetteville, where studies will continue on applying such materials to devices that could eventually be scaled for commercial use. The Little Rock professors said the NSF chose the universities to become part of a “network of quantum centers” in the U.S.

The Pine Bluff program, QuAPB, will be designed to create a future workforce of quantum researchers in Arkansas. “It’s a ‘chicken and egg’ problem,” Guisbiers said. “If you don’t create the workforce, no one is going to create a startup company and bring what we are developing in the lab and scale it up, so we need to start somewhere.”

What differentiates UA Little Rock’s research from other institutions, like MIT or Caltech, is the types of materials studied, materials that could eventually lead to commercial products.

Major institutions are more focused on the application of nano materials derived from gold or graphene, Guisbiers said. UA Little Rock researchers study chalcogenides, chemical elements within the oxygen column of the periodic table.

“They have the workforce to get something published or patented in a couple of weeks or months,” he said. “For us, it would take years to achieve the same results, which is why we don’t work on the same materials. We try to think a little bit more to find a material that almost no one cares about in the periodic table, that has nice exotic properties that no one paid attention to.”

The professors and their students are exploring quantum materials that could be used in medical imaging, electric vehicle batteries or photonic devices, like solar cells. Their research team is global. Guisbiers is Belgian; Karabacak is Turkish. Students come from Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Nepal.

“We also have the advantage of making a big impact with underprivileged students. I’m not saying a place like MIT does not recruit minority students, but not everyone can go to those institutions,” Karabacak said.

“That is why institutions, like us, we also need to do something about exposing our students to these kinds of research opportunities so everyone can get the benefit of at least learning, or being exposed to, this cutting-edge research.” 

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