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Professor of Chemical Biology Explores Quantum Topological Materials

The Edward Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory is home to the Harvard Chemistry department.
The Edward Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory is home to the Harvard Chemistry department. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Jeremiah C. Curran, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Assistant Professor of Chemical Biology Suyang Xu is working toward expanding the application of topological materials — new materials in the quantum field with the potential to significantly improve our ways of saving information.

Storage information is a key component of technology and has taken various forms throughout the years, according to Xu.

“A crucial aspect of our technology is how we store information. We carve on bones; we write on paper; most recently, we make tiny patterns on silicon wafer,” Xu wrote in an email.

Xu explained that topological materials are distinct from current forms of information storage and will allow scientists to store and control information with “great robustness.”

“Topological materials are new materials beyond the ones people understand and are already using, such as silicon, copper, glass, etc.,” Xu wrote.

“Topological materials are materials where electrons can make quantum mechanical knots at the scale of atoms,” he added. “This can make the information at the scale of atoms very robust, therefore can solve some of the technological bottlenecks and also enable new technologies such as quantum computers.”

Xu wrote that his physics and chemistry background developed during his undergraduate years in China, and later as a graduate student at Princeton, were foundational to his understanding of topological materials.

“Chemistry dictates the synthesis and design materials,” he wrote. “On the other hand, the core principles of topological materials arise from advances in quantum physics. Without a solid background in physics, we cannot properly understand the quantum properties of these new materials or experimentally uncover them.”

Xu’s lab published its most recent article in the scientific journal Nature in July 2021. Since then, the findings from Xu’s work have led Xu and his team to further investigate topics including axions, which are “elusive” elementary particles, and the creation of “next-generation memory devices.”

“Moving forward, we will continue to explore and understand the novel electrical, magnetic, and optical properties of topological materials,” Xu wrote. “We are also planning to explore the chemical properties of these materials such as how they interact with molecules or how they facilitate chemical reactions.”

—Staff writer Jeremiah C. Curran can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jerryccurran.

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