Computers that harness the unusual properties of quantum systems, such as single atoms, could revolutionise information processing, enabling vastly improved search engines, more secure encryption, and rapid modelling of biological molecules for drug development.
But the promise of quantum systems goes even deeper – offering major breakthroughs for healthcare and the environment.
In the not-too-distant future, you might be able to walk into a doctor’s office and speak into a device that will analyse the atoms within the molecules of your breath, says Dr Daoyi Dong, a mathematician and engineer at UNSW Canberra.
“That machine, which relies on quantum systems, will act as an early identifier of disease in the body, allowing effective preventive treatments to be put in place before things become more serious.”
Dong is making these futuristic devices a reality. He is working at the intersection of electrical engineering, mathematics, computer science, quantum physics and chemistry, developing algorithms to shape ultra short, femtosecond laser pulses.
A femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second. In other words, it is to a second, what one-second is to 32 million years.
The ability to observe events on these time scales means scientists can observe the movement of single atoms inside molecules. Dong is going even further, precisely controlling these laser pulses to alter and refine the properties of molecules and atoms.
“Making and breaking chemical bonds is a central task in chemistry,” explains Dong. “The development of femtosecond laser shaping technology has provided new methods beyond traditional approaches in controlling chemical reactions.”
The pulses, controlled by Dong’s intelligent algorithms, can split molecules, rotate them, and change the charge transfer between ions.
But effectively altering the state of molecules and atoms, steering them into desired quantum states and giving them functionality, can only be managed if scientists know the parameters within which they are working.
Dong and his team have been estimating these parameters – in essence, refining the recipe for how to tailor molecules for specific applications.
“These methods have potential application in pharmaceuticals, in single molecule science and in environmental science,” he says.
Another more ambitious example, says Dong, is surgically altering halomethane molecules – compounds that include chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs – to protect the Earth's protective ozone layer against further damage.
With the support of two ARC discovery projects and one International Collaboration Award, Dong is working with world leading chemists, including Professor Herschel Rabitz’s group at Princeton University in the US.
“We are expecting that our systems theory and efficient algorithms can provide powerful tools for wide experimental applications in relevant cutting-edge sciences.”