Photosynthesis plays a crucial role in shaping and sustaining life on Earth, yet many aspects of the process remain a mystery. One such mystery is how Photosystem II, a protein complex in plants, algae and cyanobacteria, harvests energy from sunlight and uses it to split water, producing the oxygen we breathe. Now researchers from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, together with collaborators from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and other institutions have succeeded in cracking a key secret of Photosystem II.
Using SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) and the SPring-8 Angstrom Compact free electron LAser (SACLA) in Japan, they captured for the first time in atomic detail what happens in the final moments leading up to the release of breathable oxygen. The data reveal an intermediate reaction step that had not been observed before.
The results, published today in Nature, shed light on how nature has optimized photosynthesis and are helping scientists develop artificial photosynthetic systems that mimic photosynthesis to harvest natural sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into hydrogen and carbon-based fuels.
“The splitting of water to molecular oxygen by photosynthesis has dramatically reshaped our early planet, eventually leading to complex life forms that rely on oxygen for respiration, including ourselves,” says Uwe Bergmann, a physics professor at UW–Madison. “Capturing the final steps of this process in real time with x-ray laser pulses, and bringing to light the individual atoms involved, is thrilling and adds an important piece to solving this over 3-billion-year-old puzzle.”
Electromagnetic noise poses a major problem for communications, prompting wireless carriers to invest heavily in technologies to overcome it. But for a team of scientists exploring the atomic realm, measuring tiny fluctuations in noise could hold the key to discovery.
“Noise is usually thought of as a nuisance, but physicists can learn many things by studying noise,” said Nathalie de Leon, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Princeton University. “By measuring the noise in a material, they can learn its composition, its temperature, how electrons flow and interact with one another, and how spins order to form magnets. It is generally difficult to measure anything about how the noise changes in space or time.”
Using specially designed diamonds, a team of researchers at Princeton and the University of Wisconsin–Madison have developed a technique to measure noise in a material by studying correlations, and they can use this information to learn the spatial structure and time-varying nature of the noise. This technique, which relies on tracking tiny fluctuations in magnetic fields, represents a stark improvement over previous methods that averaged many separate measurements.
De Leon is a leader in the fabrication and use of highly controlled diamond structures called nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers. These NV centers are modifications to a diamond’s lattice of carbon atoms in which a carbon is replaced by a nitrogen atom, and adjacent to it is an empty space, or vacancy, in the molecular structure. Diamonds with NV centers are one of the few tools that can measure changes in magnetic fields at the scale and speed needed for critical experiments in quantum technology and condensed matter physics.
While a single NV center allowed scientists to take detailed readings of magnetic fields, it was only when de Leon’s team worked out a method to harness multiple NV centers simultaneously that they were able to measure the spatial structure of noise in a material. This opens the door to understanding the properties of materials with bizarre quantum behaviors that until now have been analyzed only theoretically, said de Leon, the senior author of a paper describing the technique published online Dec. 22 in the journal Science.
“It’s a fundamentally new technique,” said de Leon. “It’s been clear from a theoretical perspective that it would be very powerful to be able to do this. The audience that I think is most excited about this work is condensed matter theorists, now that there’s this whole world of phenomena they might be able to characterize in a different way.”
One of these phenomena is a quantum spin liquid, a material first explored in theories nearly 50 years ago that has been difficult to characterize experimentally. In a quantum spin liquid, electrons are constantly in flux, in contrast to the solid-state stability that characterizes a typical magnetic material when cooled to a certain temperature.
“The challenging thing about a quantum spin liquid is that by definition there’s no static magnetic ordering, so you can’t just map out a magnetic field” the way you would with another type of material, said de Leon. “Until now there’s been essentially no way to directly measure these two-point magnetic field correlators, and what people have instead been doing is trying to find complicated proxies for that measurement.”
By simultaneously measuring magnetic fields at multiple points with diamond sensors, researchers can detect how electrons and their spins are moving across space and time in a material. In developing the new method, the team applied calibrated laser pulses to a diamond containing NV centers, and then detected two spikes of photon counts from a pair of NV centers — a readout of the electron spins at each center at the same point in time. Previous techniques would have taken an average of these measurements, discarding valuable information and making it impossible to distinguish the intrinsic noise of the diamond and its environment from the magnetic field signals generated by a material of interest.
“One of those two spikes is a signal we’re applying, the other is a spike from the local environment, and there’s no way to tell the difference,” said study coauthor Shimon Kolkowitz, an associate professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “But when we look at the correlations, the one that is correlated is from the signal we’re applying and the other is not. And we can measure that, which is something people couldn’t measure before.”
Kolkowitz and de Leon met as Ph.D. students at Harvard University, and have been in touch frequently since then. Their research collaboration arose early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when laboratory research slowed, but long-distance collaboration became more attractive as most interactions took place over Zoom, said de Leon.
Jared Rovny, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research associate in de Leon’s group, led both the theoretical and experimental work on the new method. Contributions by Kolkowitz and his team were critical to designing the experiments and understanding the data, said de Leon. The paper’s coauthors also included Ahmed Abdalla and Laura Futamura, who conducted summer research with de Leon’s team in 2021 and 2022, respectively, as interns in the Quantum Undergraduate Research at IBM and Princeton (QURIP) program, which de Leon cofounded in 2019.
The article, Nanoscale covariance magnetometry with diamond quantum sensors, was published online Dec. 22 in Science. Other coauthors were Zhiyang Yuan, a Ph.D. student at Princeton; Mattias Fitzpatrick, who earned a Ph.D. at Princeton in 2019 and was a postdoctoral research fellow in de Leon’s group (now an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering); and Carter Fox and Matthew Carl Cambria of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Support for the research was provided in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Princeton Catalysis Initiative and the Princeton Quantum Initiative.
The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Physics contributed to this article.
Shimon Kolkowitz promoted to Associate Professor
Congratulations to Shimon Kolkowitz on his promotion to Associate Professor of Physics with tenure! Professor Kolkowitz is an AMO physicist whose research focuses on ultraprecise atomic clocks and nitrogen vacancy (NV) centers in diamonds, both of which have applications in quantum sensing. He joined the UW–Madison physics faculty as an assistant professor in January 2018. Since then, he has published numerous articles in top journals, including incredibly accurate comparisons of the rate that clocks run this year in the journal Nature.
Department Chair Mark Eriksson emphasizes Kolkowitz’s contributions across all aspects of his work: “Shimon, graduate students, and postdocs here at Wisconsin, have set records with their atomic clock, and at the same time, Shimon has played critically important roles in teaching and service, including guiding our graduate admissions through the pandemic and all that entails.”
Kolkowitz has been named a Packard Fellow, a Sloan Fellow, and has earned an NSF CAREER award, amongst other honors. He is also the Education, Workforce Development, and Outreach Major Activities Lead for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN), an NSF QLCI Institute of which UW–Madison is a member.
Shimon Kolkowitz earns NSF CAREER award
Shimon Kolkowitz has already developed one of the most precise atomic clocks ever. Now, the UW–Madison physics professor has been awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use his atomic clocks to potentially answer some big questions about the physics of our universe.
The five-year, $800,000 in total award will cover research expenses, graduate student support, and outreach projects based on the research.
“I am honored and proud to receive an NSF CAREER award, which will help my research group expand our experimental efforts and build upon our recent results,” Kolkowitz says. “This award will support research into new ways to harness the remarkable precision of optical atomic clocks for exciting physics applications such as searching for dark matter and detecting gravitational waves.”
Atomic clocks are so precise because they take advantage of the natural vibration frequencies of atoms, which are identical for all atoms of a particular element. Kolkowitz and his research group have developed atomic clocks that can detect the difference in these frequencies between two clocks that would only disagree with each other by one second after 300 billion years, the tiniest detectable frequency changes to date. These clocks, then, can measure effects that shifts their frequency by only 0.00000000000000001%, opening the possibility of using them in the search for new physics.
A significant advancement in Kolkowitz’s clocks is that they are multiplexed, with six or more separate clocks in one
vacuum chamber, effectively placing each clock in the same environment. Mutliplexing means that comparisons between the clocks, and not their individual accuracy, is what matters — and allows the group to use commercially available, robust and portable lasers in their measurements. Though the clocks are not yet ready to be used to detect gravitational waves, Kolkowitz says the current setup “looks a bit like how you would eventually do that,” and will allow him to test out and demonstrate the concept.
In the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea and the NSF’s “broader impacts” to benefit society beyond scientific merit, with this award, Kolkowitz will focus efforts on quantum science outreach with pre-college students.
“We’ll be developing new demos and hands-on activities designed to introduce K-12 students to modern physics concepts,” Kolkowitz says. “We’ll use these activities to engage students at live shows and interactive events as part of The Wonders of Physics outreach program, with an emphasis on reaching rural and Native American communities in Wisconsin.”
NSF established these awards to help scientists and engineers develop simultaneously their contributions to research and education early in their careers. CAREER funds are awarded by the federal agency to junior-level faculty at colleges and universities.
Undergraduate quantum science research fellowship launches
The Open Quantum Initiative (OQI), a working group of students, researchers, educators, and leaders across the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE), announced the launch of the OQI Undergraduate Fellowship as part of their effort to advocate for and contribute to the development of a diverse and inclusive quantum workforce.
The primary mission of the OQI is to champion the development of a more inclusive quantum community. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields remain overwhelmingly white and male—only about 20% of bachelor’s degrees in physics, engineering, and computer science go to women, a mere 6% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees are awarded to African American students, and 12% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees are awarded to Hispanic students. But as the field of quantum science is still relatively new compared to other STEM subjects, groups like the OQI see a chance to make the foundations of the field diverse and accessible to all from the start.
“In many respects, we are building a national workforce from the ground up,” says David Awschalom, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering and Physics at the University of Chicago, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, and director of Q-NEXT, a Department of Energy quantum information science center led by Argonne. “There are incredible opportunities here to make the field of quantum engineering as inclusive and equitable as possible from the very beginning, creating a strong ecosystem for the future.”
At the heart of the OQI’s effort is a new fellowship starting in summer 2022. For 10 weeks, fellows will live and work at a CQE member or partner institution, completing a research project in quantum information science and engineering under the guidance of a mentor. Students will have numerous opportunities to interact with the other fellows in their cohort during the summer research period and throughout the following academic year.
Through this fellowship, the students can expand their understanding of quantum science, receive career guidance, and grow their professional networks with leaders in academia and industry. The OQI will also aim to provide future research experiences in subsequent summers, as well as provide opportunities to mentor future fellows, helping to build a larger, diverse quantum community over time.
With the support of CQE’s member and partner institutions, including the University of Chicago, Argonne, Fermilab, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, and The Ohio State University, along with the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) and Q-NEXT, this fellowship helps to establish diversity, equity, and inclusion as priorities central to the development of the quantum ecosystem.
The OQI launched the fellowship alongside a workshop on September 22 and 23. The OQI workshop, titled “Building a Diverse Quantum Ecosystem,” brought together CQE students, researchers, and professionals from across different institutions, including industry, to discuss the prevailing issues and barriers in quantum information science as the field develops. Institutional changemakers also shared what they have learned from their own efforts to increase representation. A panel on education and workforce development at the upcoming Chicago Quantum Summit on Nov. 4 will continue the discussion on building inclusive onramps for the quantum information science field.
“For quantum science and engineering to achieve its full potential, it must be accessible to all,” says Kayla Lee, Academic Alliance Lead at IBM Quantum and keynote speaker of the OQI workshop. “The OQI Undergraduate Fellowship provides explicit support for historically marginalized communities, which is crucial to increasing quantum engagement in a way that creates a more diverse and equitable field.”
Applications for the OQI Undergraduate Fellowship are open now.
Physics projects funded in first round of UW’s Research Forward initiative
In its inaugural round of funding, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education’s (OVCRGE) Research Forward initiative selected 11 projects, including two with physics department faculty involvement.
OVCRGE hosts Research Forward to stimulate and support highly innovative and groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The initiative is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and will provide funding for 1–2 years, depending on the needs and scope of the project.
Research Forward seeks to support collaborative, multidisciplinary, multi-investigator research projects that are high-risk, high-impact, and transformative. It seeks to fund research projects that have the potential to fundamentally transform a field of study as well as projects that require significant development prior to the submission of applications for external funding. Collaborative research proposals are welcome from within any of the four divisions (Arts & Humanities, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences), as are cross-divisional collaborations.