Toasting Champagne: Petro-Canada Young Innovator Alex Champagne
Alexandre Champagne (Physics) is earning a lot of recognition for his research these days.
He just earned one of two awards from the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards Program (PCYIAP) supporting outstanding young researchers whose academic work is particularly innovative, impacts positively on the learning environment of their department, and has the potential to be of significance to society at large.
Champagne is also the recipient of a $183 000 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation's (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund, a program designed to attract and retain world class researchers at Canadian institutions.
Champagne joined Concordia in 2008, straight out of post-doctoral studies at the California Institute of Technology. Returning to Quebec was a homecoming; he grew up in Trois-Rivières and did his undergraduate work at McGill (1999) before undertaking PhD (2005) research at Cornell. He was drawn to Concordia because of the small size of the Physics Department, and excited by the potential to contribute significantly to shaping its future.
The CFI grant is crucial to Champagne's work. It will be used to purchase an Ultra-low Temperature Cryogen-free Cryostat for his research group's work on quantum nanoelectronics. As he points out, the apparatus is both literally and figuratively cool. By producing environments that are only 0.3 degrees above absolute zero (about 1000 times colder than ice), "It now allows us to do the science we want to do, and puts us on par with much bigger research groups."
Quantum nanoelectronics focuses on discovering the properties of the extremely small. Champagne and the members of his research team are interested in examining the group dynamics between electrons at the quantum level because this is "where the real rules of the universe are hidden."
Unfortunately, they are not easy to uncover.
Imagine trying to determine the inner workings of a Ferrari engine while it speeds around a Formula 1 track. This is the situation Champagne faces in examining electrons under normal conditions. Even temperatures that would have our teeth chattering are much too hot for his purposes. For him, heat is noise that masks the fundamental way in which basic units of matter interact. The Cryostat will help him slow atoms and electrons down considerably, to unveil interactions that lead to exotic new states of matter.
The competitive advantage of the machine lies in its construction. Unlike other devices which produce extremely cold temperatures, the new Cryostat will have a closed cooling system; Champagne and his research team will not have to keep topping it up with liquid Helium which - at $10 per litre - can become a grant-eating expense of the order of $50 000 per year. "Once our machine is in place, we will only be spending money on research," not supplies, explains Champagne.
The primary test vehicle in his lab is a relatively new material, graphene. It consists entirely of carbon in a chicken-wire-like lattice only one-atom thick. As such, it is truly two-dimensional with a huge surface area to weight ratio. With the PCYIAP support, Champagne's team will try to establish that the material can be used as both a storage device and sensor.
For instance, graphene can safely store huge amounts of hydrogen. However, as Champagne points out, "The trick is to show that graphene can also release it on command, and this we cannot do yet". He is examining how stressing the graphene by stretching will reduce the carbon-hydrogen binding energy and release the gas.
While the research is very fundamental, it may one day provide an answer to our attempts to provide infrastructure for hydrogen-based vehicles. Right now however Champagne says, "We are only looking to develop proof of concept devices. Once we show something is possible, it becomes an engineering problem, not a science one."
The Ultra-low Temperature Cryogen-free Cryostat will be custom made to Champagne's specifications. As such, he expects delivery in the spring of 2011. With a total price tag of almost $457 000, the device is also being supported by a CFI-matching grant from the Ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport du Québec, with the balance being supported by other partners.