College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Lin Zhou explores the atomic realm at the Sensitive Instrument Facility

Lin Zhou working on the scanning transmission electron microscope at the Sensitive Instrument Facility.

Just north of the central campus of Iowa State University sits an unassuming cluster of buildings nestled among a stand of trees.

Behind the white rectangular exterior of one of these buildings lies a uniquely constructed space that enables the study of structure and chemistry at the atomic level.

The Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF), a part of Ames National Laboratory, boasts two-feet thick concrete floors with built-in vibration-dampening layers, aluminum-plate lined bays, and fiberglass reinforced concrete for electro-magnetic isolation and vibration-free heating and ventilation. These features help ensure that state-of-the-art instrumentation housed in the SIF achieves the most accurate results.

A range of different microscopes are housed in the SIF, producing resolutions from the millimeter scale (which is similar to the human eye) to the atomic scale, which needs the controlled environment that the SIF provides.

“By combining different microscope capabilities, ranging from optical to scanning electron microscopes and (scanning) transmission electron microscopes, we can explore the composition and the structure of materials from millimeters down to the atomic scale,” said Lin Zhou, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Zhou conducts her research in the SIF, focusing on the atomic structure and phase transition dynamics of certain materials for quantum information technology.

“We utilize the principles of quantum mechanics in computing to achieve faster computing speeds than some of the classic computing methods for specific problems. However, in order to do quantum computing, we need to fabricate devices known as quantum bits that can mimic the behavior of atoms,” Zhou said.

One approach involves using superconductive materials and stacking them together to form these “man-made atoms,” which can then be transformed into circuits for quantum computing. However, manufacturing these quantum bits can produce structural imperfections that limit a device’s performance.

Zhou’s main goal right now is to analyze and understand the impact of those imperfections with the electron microscopes so that the device’s quality can improve.