What does creating materials atom by atom have to do with the iPhone X? A condensed matter physicist would tell you that the microscopic understanding of silicon led to transistors, computers, and now the smartphones we know and use every day. In other words, sometimes you (literally) have to look at the small picture to understand the big.
Tyler S. Smith is a graduate student in condensed matter physics within the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Tennessee. He conducts his research at the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, where he is focused on the creation of novel 2D materials and subsequent in-situ characterization within a clean ultra-high vacuum environment. Smith’s experiments start by optimizing growth parameters for different surface reconstructions, which involves growing sub-monolayers of metallic elements on readily available substrates. Structural and electronic properties of the surface are then probed.
“To understand how materials are structured and the electronic interactions that drive emergent properties in them is to understand the world in front of us at a very fundamental level,” said Smith.
Comprehending the physical properties of these materials helps researchers advance the ability to model and predict future systems. The outcomes of these experiments not only contain vast amounts of information that increase our understanding of the underlying physics, they also have many possible technological applications.
Smith’s research project, “Exploring Electronic Instabilities of Metallic Atoms on Si(111): An Adsorbate Doping Scheme,” dives deeper into these applications. “An excellent candidate for studying these physical phenomena are metal atoms that reconstruct on the Si(111) surface,” he says. “As silicon is famously utilized for semiconductor electronics, the possibility of achieving superconductivity on such a common platform is an exciting possibility for technological applications (e.g., quantum computers).”
Smith plans on continuing his studies in academia in the same field, even though the materials in which he’s studying will probably change. He will continue to focus on crafting novel materials, probing their properties with the large amount of techniques he has learned throughout his time at UT. Part of this has to do with the fact that Smith still finds wonder in the work he does every day. Scanning tunneling microscopy produces images of his grown surfaces at the atomic scale, and often contain beautiful mosaic structures that represent self-ordering at the nanoscale. “To me this is natural beauty at a fundamental level.”
When asked what a new graduate student who is interested in research could do to get started, Smith was quick to advocate for both professors and his peers. “Start talking to professors early for your research interest,” he says. “Spend some time in various labs with other graduate students (we’re more than happy to show you what we do), and try to hone in on what truly interests you. Being in a field you truly enjoy is very important for a healthy mind and productive career.”
Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152, firstname.lastname@example.org)