St Andrews physicists create materials of future using MBE

A Scottish university has the potential to create materials completely unknown in nature thanks to the power of a unique piece of equipment.

Minister for higher education Shirley-Anne Somerville, pictured with Dr Peter Wahl, officially opened the lab at St Andrews University. Picture: Alan Richardson

Physicists returning to St Andrews following the Christmas break will be able to piece together structures one atom at a time at the university’s new centre for designer quantum materials, which opened on 8 December.

The centrepiece of the complex is a reactive oxide molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) system – the only example of its kind in the UK.

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The machine, which fills an entire lab, uses high vacuums and temperatures to create so-called “supermaterials” that could be used in electronic products of the future.

Almost like building Lego structures with single atom building blocks, the lab allows the composition of a material to be changed between each layer, effectively making entirely new materials – combinations and structures which would be impossible to create by any other means.

It could potentially lead to electronic devices just a single atom thick.

“It is an instrument which allows us to build materials a single atomic layer at a time,” Dr Paul Wahl said in a TV interview. “So we can combine different materials, stacking them on top of each other, 
and basically changing the material with each individual layer.”

Academics at St Andrews hope the facility will play an important part in consolidating strong research collaborations with leading research institutes throughout the UK, Europe and the world.

University principal Professor Sally Mapstone said: “This facility puts Scotland at the forefront of international efforts to develop new, smart materials which are integral to advances across a multitude of technological challenges and opportunities.

“It is one of only a handful of such centres worldwide and we hope will offer Scottish and UK higher education and industry an unparalleled advantage in this rapidly developing field of exploration.”

Professor Graham Turnbull, head of the school of physics and astronomy, said: “The MBE system will allow us to construct complex crystals atomic layer by atomic layer, or even make electronic 
devices that are a single atom thick.

“This will allow our research teams to study exotic properties of quantum matter and to engineer new materials that control superconductivity and how electrons and light interact.”