20 January 2006

Within a few years the lives of most people will be touched by the quantum revolution – a change as profound as cars, flight, antibiotics or the Internet.

Progress in understanding the arcane laws that govern nature at the sub-atomic level and spectacular new advances in minuscule technology are ushering humanity into the quantum age, said Professor Gerard Milburn, head of Quantum Nanoscience at The University of Queensland

Professor Milburn is convener of a major international scientific meeting, the Sir Mark Oliphant Conference on Frontiers of Quantum Nanoscience, which opens at Noosa on Monday.

“Most people have heard of nanotechnology as the building of new materials at the molecular or atomic scale. Well that’s the stone axe age compared to what’s coming,” Professor Milburn predicts.

“This is the new era of building revolutionary materials and devices out of individual atoms and particles – things that obey the bizarre rules of quantum mechanics, rather than familiar physics, and can do new things.”

It is also moving with blinding speed. In recent weeks two international groups have announced that they have built devices consisting of a handful of quantum switches which have the power of 256 ordinary transistor switches.

Another example is the creation of "molecular magnets" from crystals of organo-mettalic molecules. Like normal magnets these point north or south and so can be used as incredibly small on/off switches and to store bits of information in much the same way a computer does.

“By engineering different kinds of materials at atomic scales we can make tiny devices – for example a minute cantilever that is so sensitive it can tell which way a single electron is pointing, so you could use it to store bits of information,” he said.

“This isn’t the next step in computing. It’s a whole new era in technology, and it is arriving at a breathtaking pace.”

By using single electrons or light particles to store information, the prospect is for computers of immense speed and power, able to tackle the most complex computational problems from predicting climate to designing perfectly-adapted drugs, in a fraction the time taken by today’s machines.

It also means the arrival of a host of new materials, engineered from the ground up, atom by atom, to transform manufacturing and even medicine: “Scientists are already working on a new generation of biomaterials which interact with the body far more safely and effectively than those today,” he said.

Among the new devices in development is the "quantum dot", in effect an artificial atom in which electrons are confined at various energy levels, and then can be kicked to a different level to perform a specific task.

“For instance, a quantum dot could be used as a sensor to detect something with exquisite precision, and then give a flash of light, consisting of a single photon, to signal the detection.”

Such advances also bring with them great ethical, health, safety and legal questions, from who owns and controls the technology to how it will be used and how it affects people, Professor Milburn said.

A special session at the conference is devoted to exploring these.

The Sir Mark Oliphant Conference on Frontiers of Quantum Nanoscience will take place at The Noosa Blue Resort, Noosa, Queensland from January 22-26, 2006, phone 1800 463854

Media are welcome to attend and interview participants.

More information: http://pitp.physics.ubc.ca/upcoming/noosa/index.html
Professor Gerard Milburn, UQ, 07 3365 1089 or 0410 152 193
Email: milburn@physics.uq.edu.au
Anna Rogers, UQ, 0428 1948 42
Jan King, UQ Media, 07 3365 1120 or 0413 601 248
Email j.king@uq.edu.au