Richard Feyman (1918-1988)

Richard Feyman (1918-1988)

Going After the Big Thing

Jak Chakhalian (photo by Matt Reynolds)

Jak Chakhalian (photo by Matt Reynolds)

by Chris Branam

When Jak Chakhalian was just a teenager, his aunt presented him with the first volume of published lectures by Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning American theoretical physicist.

"I didn't understand 99 percent of what he was talking about but I became so intrigued by his enthusiasm for physics," Chakhalian said. "I kept trying to understand and by the time I was a sophomore in college I was working through his lectures on quantum mechanics with great fun. It took me five years to get through his three volumes."

Feynman died in 1988, but Chakhalian never forgot him. He displays a large photo of Feynman on the wall above his desk at the University of Arkansas, where Chakhalian is forging a reputation of his own.

Chakhalian, a professor of physics in Fulbright College, has been selected as an investigator by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which is now developing a $1.8 million grant to support Chakhalian’s research. The five-year grant will allow Chakhalian to create and investigate novel quantum materials and explore the relationships at the interface between those materials on the nanoscale. The grant will fund his state-of-the-art facility to grow artificial quantum materials at the atomic scale, with the ultimate goal of controlling their properties.

Chakhalian’s findings could represent a breakthrough in the field of exotic magnetism and high temperature superconductivity – and devise a new approach called materials discovery by design.

His project was funded after an intense national competition conducted by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, based in Palo Alto, California. The Moore Experimental Investigators in Quantum Materials program awarded a total of $34.2 million to 19 scientists at 11 universities across the United States, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation grant confirms what we have known for some time, that Jak Chakhalian is a world-class physicist," said Sharon Gaber, the University of Arkansas provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. "The University of Arkansas aspires to become a national leader in the field of nanoscience, and Dr. Chakhalian’s work will enable us to move closer to that goal."

Quantum materials are substances in which the collective behavior of electrons leads to many emergent properties, such as high-temperature superconductivity and exotic forms of magnetism. New discoveries in this field could eventually lead to revolutionary applications in electronics, computing, catalysis and energy technology.

Superconductivity is the pinnacle of quantum behavior. Chakhalian’s focus remains on what he sees as the ultimate summit in condensed matter physics: room temperature superconductivity.

"I’m after the big thing," he said. "With room temperature superconductivity you can levitate trains, cars, cranes – anything, really – and move them with no friction and no motor, no oil or gas. Or you can transfer electrical power around the globe without power losses. If we ever achieve this, the world will change very rapidly."

In 2007, he created a novel artificial material using a ferromagnet and a high-temperature superconductor. Science magazine cited his findings as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year.

Chakhalian holds the Charles E. and Clydene Scharlau Endowed Professorship and directs the Laboratory for Artificial Quantum Materials at the University of Arkansas.

He joined the physics faculty in 2006 after a three-year fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Germany. He holds a doctorate in solid state physics from the University of British Columbia, Canada.

Chris Branam

About the author

Chris Branam serves as a research communications writer and editor for the University of Arkansas.