Professor Alexander Quandt, acting chair of the Materials for Energy Research Group and focus area co-ordinator for the Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials, has won the Special Annual Theme Award in the National Science and Technology Forum South32 Awards (the “Science Oscars”) for his work on materials for inclusive economic development. His work on the theoretical foundations, numerical implementations and practical applications of state-of-the-art material simulations focuses on first principle methods, starting from a quantum mechanical description of the atoms that constitute a given material. His methods have allowed for the development of ground-breaking contributions to the field of 2D materials that play a central role in upcoming quantum technologies.
“Computer experiments have finally established themselves alongside more traditional experimental techniques as a powerful tool to develop novel technologies in a very economical and systematic fashion,” says Quandt. “My research also points out new applications of chemical elements across the whole periodic table, which might lead to new types of solar cells, batteries and computing devices [being] developed here in South Africa.”
Quandt says the highlight of his research is the work on planar types of nanomaterials similar to the so-called wonder material, graphene. Some of his research in the field pre-dated graphene and was based on boron, the immediate neighbour of carbon in the periodic table.
“The research groups I managed in the past or started recently are role models for unconventional but nevertheless very successful and productive multi-disciplinary research initiatives into the fields of materials science and energy technologies,” adds Quandt. “The University of the Witwatersrand has become the main hub of a new trans-continental ARUA Centre of Excellence in Materials, Energy and Nanotechnology (ARUA CoE-MEN) that is headed by Leslie Cornish and myself.”
Quandt is hoping that his work may ultimately lead to the establishment of a network of highly trained graduates that will strengthen the materials beneficiation and high-tech sectors, something that South Africa sorely needs if it wants to play a role in emergent technologies.
“The goal is to develop an accurate description of optical and energy devices over multiple length scales, which start from the atomic structure of basic materials and extend all the way to the simulation of a typical working device,” says Quandt. “Understanding a solar cell, a complex optical waveguide system or a battery in virtually all of its physical and chemical aspects allows for the optimisation of existing technologies and the development of entirely new technologies.”
Ultimately, Quandt believes that the development and implementation of powerful numeric simulation methods will be a key aspect in emerging fields such as Industry 4.0 and Quantum Computing.
“As a student I was given a copy of Linus Pauling’s The Nature of the Chemical Bond, and I devoured it in one go,” concludes Quandt. “Pauling’s unique scientific style of combining intuition with quantum mechanical calculations and detailed experimental studies has always been an inspiration for my own work as a materials scientist. It was a great satisfaction to add new fundamental aspects to one of the most esoteric chapters in his book about electron deficient materials.”
Quandt walks away with the Special Annual Theme Award thanks to his pioneering work in computational materials science with applications to nanomaterials, optics/photonics and renewable energy research, an award well earned indeed. — Tamsin Oxford