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Scientist To Delve Deep into Quantum Physics with NSF CAREER Award

Dr. Fan Zhang, associate professor of physics in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at The University of Texas at Dallas, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award for his research in the complex realm of quantum physics.

The five-year grant will support Zhang’s theoretical work and education outreach on the fundamental physics of topological superconductivity.

Zhang’s research builds on the science of topological insulators, which are materials that behave like insulators in their interiors but are conductors on their exteriors. His NSF project involves investigating the topological properties of superconductors — materials in which, below a certain critical temperature, electrical resistance vanishes and magnetic fields are expelled.

Like their topological insulator cousins, topological superconductors exhibit unusual properties, or states, on their exteriors that differ from, but are determined by, those in their interiors. Such superconductors are predicted to host boundary states called Majorana bound states. The presence of these exotic bound states is a consequence of the mutual interactions of trillions upon trillions of electrons in the interiors of topological superconductors.

“Electrons are normal complex fermions, which are a type of elementary particle, and they carry charge and spin. By sharp contrast, Majorana bound states are unusual real fermions that have neither charge nor spin,” Zhang said.

“Majorana bound states always come in pairs and only exist at the boundaries of a topological superconductor, where they behave like two halves of one electron,” he said. “For example, if you have a one-dimensional topological superconducting system, like a wire, then the Majorana bound states will appear at the two ends. If you have a two-dimensional system, these states will appear at the edges.”

“The most important reason for studying these systems is because it could lead to revealing fundamental beauty and understanding about the physics world around us. To me, that’s more profound and more significant than how we exploit it to make influential future devices such as a quantum computer.”

Dr. Fan Zhang, associate professor of physics in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Fan Zhang.

Achieving topological superconductors that exhibit these Majorana bound states is one of the biggest challenges in condensed matter and materials physics.

“There is a race around the world to identify the first Majorana bound states,” Zhang said. “Of course, scientists and engineers desire to take advantage of their unusual properties, such as for quantum information and quantum computing, but it’s the curious nature of their fundamental properties that drives me to work in this field.

“The most important reason for studying these systems is because it could lead to revealing fundamental beauty and understanding about the physics world around us. To me, that’s more profound and more significant than how we exploit it to make influential future devices such as a quantum computer.

“Once we can predict, create, observe and manipulate the Majorana bound states, we will add another layer to our understanding of nature. After that, engineers can strive for a Majorana-based fault-tolerant quantum computer.”

Zhang said his CAREER award will support novel work on the physical effects of topological superconductivity and materials systems that could bring it closer to reality. In particular, he is investigating how time-reversal symmetry makes Majorana bound states more exotic. In addition, the educational component of this award will allow Zhang to develop dual-level courses on topological quantum matter and create online animated video lessons geared toward boosting physics knowledge among the general public.

About CAREER Awards

The Faculty Early Career Development Program supports early-career faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research and excellent education. The highly selective program is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty who are considered likely to become leaders in their fields. 

In the most recent funding cycle, seven UT Dallas faculty members received NSF CAREER awards, the most for the University in any round of funding. 

Dr. Kyle Fox, assistant professor of computer science, for research on algorithmic foundations of computer science and their relationship to geometry and topology. 

Dr. Qin Gu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, to expand her work on novel lasers. 

Dr. Yang Hu, assistant professor of electrical engineering, to develop new hardware and software for automated driving systems. 

Dr. Michael Kolodrubetz, assistant professor of physics, for research on nonequilibrium quantum systems. 

Dr. Faruck Morcos, assistant professor of biological sciences, for research on biomolecule evolution and the effects of mutations on protein function. 

Dr. Fan Zhang, associate professor of physics, for research in quantum physics and topological superconductivity. 

Dr. Lingming Zhang, assistant professor of computer science, for work to advance automated debugging technology. 

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu.