Quantum Science, Particle Physics and Nanoscale Motors Receive Support from Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Tech Fund
New quantum materials that promise to power future communications, AI-based research to uncover fundamental laws of physics, and a project to build biomolecular engines have been selected for funding through the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund.
The three projects, led by teams of professors from all fields of science and engineering, aim to launch new discoveries that have the potential to transform entire fields of research and propel innovation. Projects were selected following a competitive application process in which proposals were evaluated on their potential to accelerate progress on important challenges through advances in knowledge development and technological capabilities.
“These are deeply important projects that have the potential to take both our fundamental knowledge and our technical capabilities to exciting new levels,” said Dean of Research Pablo Debenedetti, Class of 1950 Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. and professor of chemistry and biology. engineering. “Rather than iterating, these proposals aim to make major breakthroughs in a discipline and have the ability to completely change the conversation.”
The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technologies Fund stimulates the exploration of ideas and approaches that can profoundly enable advances in science or engineering. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and former executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1976 and served as a director of Princeton from 2004 to 2008. He and his wife, Wendy, a businesswoman and philanthropist, established the fund in 2009. Including this year’s three awards, the fund has supported 27 research projects at Princeton.
Bringing artificial intelligence to the search for new discoveries in physics
Embarking on a quest to explore the fundamental mysteries of the universe, a team of physicists will bring the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to the exploration of the subatomic building blocks of matter.
Despite major advances in understanding the physical laws that govern the universe, many questions remain open, including the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which together make up 95% of the universe. A team led by Senior Research Physicist Peter Elmer, Associate Professor of Physics Mariangela Lisanti and Assistant Professor of Physics Isobel Ojalvo will develop methods to apply AI as a tool to search for new physical phenomena in experiments conducted at accelerators particles such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The LHC experiments validated the main theory of the composition of the universe, the Standard Model, by confirming theoretical predictions such as the existence of the Higgs particle. Yet these discoveries do not answer unresolved questions insufficiently explained by the Standard Model, including dark matter, dark energy, and neutrino mass. New theories are needed — but how to conduct a search for new principles of physics when you don’t know what to look for?
AI can help in this quest by searching the huge amount of data resulting from particle collision experiments for new or unexpected results. The team will develop AI-based algorithms that look for anomalies in the data that suggest new phenomena. Through training and deployment of AI software, the team will evaluate particle collision data to search for new physical laws that could explain unexplained facets of our universe.
Station X: an extreme environment for quantum discoveries
Building on recent discoveries in quantum materials, a team from the departments of Physics, Chemistry, and Electrical and Computer Engineering will build a new quantum exploration site 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 use quantum properties could unlock new capabilities in computing, communications, and many other fields. While much research has focused on the exotic quantum properties of metals and semimetals, few studies have looked into the quantum behaviors of electrical insulators. — materials in which electrons cannot move freely — mainly due to the lack of methods to observe these properties in insulators. Recent work by Princeton teams has detected intriguing examples of quantum phases in insulators and semiconductors, but exploring quantum behaviors in these systems requires specialized conditions and new experimental approaches.
To make transformative discoveries in the emerging field 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 Researcher in Electrical Engineering and Loren Pfeiffer will build an experimental research facility in Princeton’s Jadwin Hall called Station X.
The station will house equipment to create extreme temperatures, pressures, magnetic fields, material purity, and other conditions that allow 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 capable of exploring the synthesis and measurements of a wide range of quantum materials. This project, combining Princeton’s expertise in chemistry, engineering and physics, will ensure Princeton a leading role in the emergence of new areas of quantum science.
Bio-inspired nanoscale engines and factories
Inspired by the biological machinery of the body, a team of molecular biologists and mechanical engineers will design tiny motors and possibly entire factories dedicated to treating disease.
The technology for building these molecular robots builds on recent discoveries at Princeton about the nature of the cellular skeleton, which is made up of long, thin proteins called microtubules. Nature is adept at building devices with mobile microtubules that perform tasks such as propelling the movement of single-celled organisms or dividing chromosomes in cells. One such device, the mitotic spindle, is made up of strands of microtubules that attach to chromosomes and pull them apart during cell division. Microtubules can exert force on other molecules by pulling or pushing them, they can pull molecules apart or propel them together, and they can self-assemble into new structures.
Princeton researchers led by Associate Professor of Molecular Biology Sabine Petry have uncovered how spindles form and uncovered molecular mechanisms to control them. Petry will team up with Howard Stone, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon, whose expertise in fluid mechanics will help build miniature channels and chips, in which the machines based on microtubules will be assembled.
The team planned to build several types of nanoscale microtubule-based devices, including bio-actuators, capable of performing a task such as moving a particle or molecule from a place to another. By connecting microtubule-based machines through channels, guided by fluid flows in certain directions, researchers will create nanoscale assembly lines and eventually factories. Researchers envision this microtubule-based nanotechnology as opening up an entirely new field of science, making complex manipulations of molecules and other small structures at the nanoscale possible.