The award-winning scientist's discovery could lay the groundwork for faster, lighter smartphones and computers.
Nanoscience focuses on a tiny world that can’t be seen with the human eye, but holds the potential to address global challenges, from climate change mitigation to space tech.
Professor Yuerui (Larry) Lu has long been fascinated by the field because it proves that from a small place you can make a big difference.
His work in nanotechnology and nanoscience has won him the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year in the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, as well as the Australian Academy of Science Pawsey Medal.
Lu, a Professor at The Australian National University (ANU) School of Engineering, first discovered the tiny world of nanotechnology while studying applied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Science and Technology of China.
“It was a ‘wow’ moment – I thought, this is amazing. I was blown away. From this tiny world, we can do so many different, incredible things. From then on, I was hooked.”
Now, Lu has been recognised for the first experimental discovery of interlayer exciton pairs, a breakthrough that had eluded scientists for decades.
“This phenomenon was predicted by theory a few decades ago but until now, scientists had struggled to find them in experiments,” he says.
An interlayer exciton is made by a negatively charged electron and a positively charged ‘hole’ that are sitting in two different layers. When two interlayer excitons bind together, they form an interlayer exciton pair, and when many of these come together, they can transform into a superfluid.
Think of a superfluid as being like a freeway. Just as a freeway allows vehicles to move with minimal resistance, superfluids enable charges to travel without losing energy.
For the future of technology, this discovery is significant. Lu’s findings could pave the way for a vast range of next-generation technologies required for high-speed computing, information processing and data communication.
“This fundamental science can be translated into technology, laying the foundations for a new generation of smartphones and computers that can be much faster and consume less electricity than current devices,” Lu says.
“As the material is extremely thin and lightweight, we can also use it in satellites and space technologies, for communication and information processing – this system has many potential applications for our society.”
Lu is also behind the world’s thinnest micro-lens. He and his team used two-dimensional materials to create a lens that is only one two-thousandth the width of a human hair.
The micro-lens has the potential to transform Australia’s medical, environmental, technology and aerospace industries, from helping doctors better understand cardiovascular disease to revolutionising mobile and electronic devices.
Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and ANU Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Keith Nugent says Lu’s work could have important implications for education and training in Australia.
“The development of nanoscale devices requires a high level of expertise in materials and science engineering, which could inspire more young Australians to pursue careers in these fields,” he says.
“Larry’s achievements have helped to advance the field of nanotechnology by providing new tools and techniques for creating and manipulating materials at the atomic scale. His research has also helped to bridge the gap between fundamental science and practical applications, demonstrating the potential for these materials to have a significant impact on a variety of industries.”
As the leader of the Nano-Electro-Mechanical System (NEMS) Lab at ANU, Lu is passionate about training the next generation of nanoscience and nanotechnology researchers.
“Teaching and supervising is very rewarding,” he says. “It contributes to the growth of the entire scientific community and can benefit your own research as well, because you can find talented, motivated students to work with in the future.
“We need to pass our new, key techniques on to others, so that future generations can build on the work we are doing now.”
Lu is pleased to be recognised in the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prizes, but it’s the effect on his young family that makes him smile.
“It’s a great honour to win this award and I am very excited about what it can mean for the future, in so many fields. It will inspire me to work harder to address future challenges,” he says.
“But as soon as my eight-year-old daughter heard about it, she wanted to know if she could meet the Prime Minister. It’s her dream.”
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