START-UP grant for microchip that tests new fundamental physics theories

News - 27 February 2019 - Webredactie 3ME

Richard Norte, expert in the area of micro- and nano-engineering and researcher at the Department of Precision and Microsystems Engineering is developing microchips that make it possible to  explore the interplay between two famous quantum effects. It has been speculated that this unexplored regime of physics could unlock the secret of high-temperature superconductivity, the quantum physics of electrons, and even put limits on new theories of gravity. Norte received an NWO START-UP grant this month for his research. 

Casimir forces and superconductivity

Norte designed the microchip to carry out experiments to research  the interplay between two famous quantum effects: Casimir forces and superconductivity. The Casimir force is an  attractive force that acts between all objects in the universe when placed extremely close together – on the order of thousands of a human hair apart. This strong attractive force between objects closely-spaced objects currently puts limits on how closely we can pack together movable parts on modern microchips before they stick together. At low temperatures, superconductors are materials that can conduct electricity without any resistance. Superconductors now form the backbone of many technologies including MRIs, levitating MAGLEV trains, mobile phone stations and even windmill technologies. These technologies have been revolutionized by the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity which require only liquid nitrogen to cool – a feature that collapsed the prices of many technologies. While these materials have made an enormous impact on modern society (even winning the Nobel Prize in 1987), there’s no existing physics that properly describes how their superconductivity works. Some theories suggest that the Casimir effect within these multi-layered materials could be responsible for their high-temperature superconductivity. Others speculate this regime could be one the few feasible experiments where one can test new theories of gravity. Norte’s new experiments will utilize membrane technology, intended for light-sails in space missions, as an new route towards uncovering this corner of physics teeming with big implications.

To this date, we know almost nothing about this exciting regime of quantum science, and many physicists believe that this research area could generate new scientific breakthroughs. My microchip experiments are taking us one step closer to this. This research demonstrates the power of novel nanotechnologies to tackle fundamental physics experiments in completely new material regimes. I will use my START-UP grant to further develop my fundamental research.

― Richard Norte
This video shows how high-temperature superconductors can levitate

START-UP grant

This month, NWO awarded three million euros to six recently appointed physics and chemistry researchers via the START-UP programme. START-UP is intended to support recently-appointed university lecturers, senior lecturers and professors working in physics and chemistry. The START-UP grant allows researchers to explore creative, speculative ideas in the research areas described in the Physics and Chemistry Sector Plan. The six approved projects cover the full breadth of these research priorities in physics and chemistry.
Read more about NWO’s START-UP grant.