Building Perfection: Shell Seminar with Michael Bevan from JHU

Every aspiring engineer dreams of designing the perfect object. A substance so durable it can withstand cosmic forces but be light enough to manifest an ideal space rocket. Or possibly a chemical with industrial applications, yet cheap enough to manufacture on a large scale. Michael Bevan’s current research seeks to do just that, find engineering perfection. Bevan aims to design and ultimately manufacture a material called, “perfect crystals.” Perfect crystals are particles of atoms stacked on top of each other that are so perfectly geometrically aligned they behave with special properties. One ideal use of a perfect crystal is to build a computer out of them that theoretically could run at the speed of light. The immense computing capabilities at this speed are nigh impossible to fathom. Perfect crystals are not naturally occurring, and previous man made attempts to produce them have all been futile. Many who tried ended up with minor defects at the atomic level. These defects had to do with how the crystals stacked on top of each other such as point-mass flaws or line-ridge faults.

Bevan encountered some issues when trying to create perfect crystals. By definition, these perfect crystalline structures cannot be undone and therefore the setting of the positions of atoms in the perfect crystal is irreversible Additionally, the particles themselves are extremely difficult to control. Bevan said that the greatest obstacle was, “trying to image particles very close to one another” but, he added, “That’s where the engineering kicks in…do the science then design.”

With the use of total internal reflection microscopy (TIRM), Bevan’s project team was able to measurably record the fidgeting movement atoms have when they are close to each other. One day in the lab, one of Bevan’s graduate students randomly discovered that adjusting the amount of electrical energy pushing particles together can actually be changed incrementally and thus alter the behavior of two particles close to one another. Particles, while never actually touching another particle, still get close enough to stick, though Bevan noted that, “it’s basically levitation, it sound’s like witchcraft but is not that bad.” If all particles line up uniformly, then the manufacturer generates a perfect crystal which has a lot of useful properties. Bevan’s research continues on today, so sometime down the line the latest iPhone processor may be powered by technology that feels like it is straight out of science fiction.

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