UW News

October 24, 2018

UW physicist Jiun-Haw Chu named Packard Fellow for research on quantum materials

UW News

Jiun-Haw Chu, a University of Washington assistant professor of physics and faculty member at the UW’s Clean Energy Institute, has been named a 2018 Packard Fellow by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for his research on quantum materials — substances that exhibit novel combinations of quantum-mechanical properties that could one day transform information technology. As a Packard Fellow, Chu will receive $875,000 in research funding over five years.

“It was quite a surprise — and an honor — to receive a Packard Fellowship,” said Chu.

A person standing in a lab.

Jiun-Haw Chu, a UW assistant professor of physics and faculty member at the UW’s Clean Energy Institute.Jui-Ting Huang

The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering have been awarded annually since 1988 to 18 early-career scientists, and are intended for innovative endeavors that may fall beyond the scope of traditional sources of funding. Fellows are chosen among a pool of 100 nominees — two each from 50 invited universities.

Chu’s research focuses on materials with strange properties emerging from the law of quantum mechanics, the probability-based rules which govern the behavior of matter at the subatomic level. Tapping into those quantum-mechanical properties and developing quantum materials are key steps in developing revolutionary innovations in information technology.

In the lab, Chu and his team design and discover different types of crystals to trigger precise changes in their quantum properties. Though the term “crystal” might conjure visions of chandeliers or a wintry landscape, the crystals that Chu and his team work with are lab-grown compounds with superconducting properties that often have shown promise as quantum materials — but with one major caveat.

“The secret of high-temperature superconductivity lies within a phase transition at temperatures approaching absolute zero — known as quantum phase transition,” said Chu. “Our experiments seek to deform the crystal structure to induce a quantum phase transition, which will guide us to find new superconductors at more amenable conditions, closer to room temperature.”

The method that they developed to deform the structure of crystalline superconductors, known as strain tuning, involves suspending a tiny crystal sample within a piezoelectric device, and using continuous changes in voltage to deform the 3D crystal structure.

An image of electronic devices used in laboratory research.

Some of the piezoelectric devices used in Chu’s lab.Joshua Mutch

“Strain tuning is like a ‘control knob’ for changing crystal properties with precision,” said Chu. “It allows us to make small, specific changes to the crystal’s 3D structure, and we can then test the effects of these alterations.”

Packard Foundation support will allow Chu to continue and expand his lab’s efforts to identify new types of quantum materials through strain tuning. In addition, Chu would like to employ strain tuning to develop topological materials. In topological materials, the electrons’ wave functions — mathematical descriptions of their quantum-mechanical states — give the material unique and robust physical properties. For example, topological insulators act as insulators in bulk, but are electrically conductive along their surfaces. Chu believes that strain tuning may be a route to creating devices with topological properties on demand— such as a conducting edge that can be switched on or off.

“I am very pleased at this support from the Packard Foundation, which will allow me to pursue these potentially transformative projects,” said Chu.

Chu graduated from the National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He earned a doctoral degree at Stanford University in applied physics in 2012. After postdoctoral fellowships at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University, Chu joined the UW faculty in 2016.

According to the UW Office of Research, Chu is the 10th UW faculty member to receive a Packard Fellowship — and the second from both the Department of Physics, after former faculty member Christopher Stubbs in 1994, and the Clean Energy Institute, after Brandi Cossairt in 2015.