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March 6, 2017

Physicists Create Molecule That Shouldn't Be Possible, But Could Help Quantum Computing

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It never ceases to amaze me how scientists seem to know where their discoveries will lead – or how long they’ll spend tilting at windmills. What’s even more startling is that sometimes they actually hit the target after trying for decades without success. And here we are, with another huge breakthrough – something scientists couldn’t make until they could. And now that they can, they could change the world.

IBM physicists have created an odd, triangular molecule that chemists have been chasing for 70 years – triangulene.

Czech scientist Erich Clar predicted triangulene back in 1950, but until now nobody, including Erich, had actually been able to produce it. And it took physicists, not chemists, to do it.

Triangulene closely resembles graphene. They’re both only an atom thick and have atoms arranged in hexagons.

The important difference is that triangulene has two free electrons, which should make it highly reactive and unstable. Those electrons should want to pair up, and yet this molecule lasted in the lab for four days. 

To make the triangulene, the researchers took a precursor sample and loaded it onto a copper surface coated with salt, in a vacuum, at low temperatures.

Then, with a scanning tunneling electron microscope, they delivered a targeted blast of electricity, which broke down the bonds and left the free electrons behind. Although this all sounds like pie-in-the-sky lab work, it could have some cool practical applications.

When the researchers tested the molecule’s magnetic properties, they discovered that the two free electrons could spin in different directions. The directions of the spin can stand in for the “1s” and “0s” that traditionally control electronics – so information could be coded onto these molecules, a key factor for quantum computing.

Although making triangulene was slow and expensive, it’s definitely worth further study. No wonder IBM is so excited!
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