A speech given by RMIT Associate Professor Andrew Greentree to mark Founders' Day, 7 June, 2014.
Associate Professor Andrew Greentree. Photo: Vicki Jones.
We are in the Information Revolution, defined by ubiquitous computing and information integration. Smart phones, fibre optic communications and computing networks. The flow on effects of the world-wide web have led to entirely new business models and efficiencies that were literally inconceivable before.
RMIT has been important here. Some of the earliest work on silicon fabrication was done here at RMIT. RMIT's Micro Materials Technology Centre is one of Australia's oldest and most important nano fabrication facilities, and is being replaced by the $35 million, state-of-the-art Micro Nano Research Facility.
This facility will keep us at the forefront of nanoscience and nanotechnology research, and ensure that our students are the best trained.
But RMIT is not just about training people for now. We are preparing for the future.
The next big revolution that is coming is quantum engineering.
It's estimated that 30 per cent of the gross national product of the United States comes directly from inventions made possible by quantum mechanics. MRI machines, lasers, computers, atomic clocks, to name a few. But this is only the beginning.
Consider the computer as it exists today. Small, fast and powered by transistors: all it does is add numbers.
And because we make computer chips in parallel, they are incredibly cheap. The XBox One has 5 billion transistors and retails for around $500. So the cost of each transistor is less than 100 nano dollars.
At the heart of every transistor is one aspect of quantum mechanics: barrier tunnelling. When you or I meet a brick wall, we have to go around or over it to get to the other side. This is because we live in the classical world.
But in the quantum world, when electrons meet their brick wall, there's a chance that they can go straight through. This was weird science in the 1920s and 1930s, but it's the starting point for modern physics and engineering.
This is the quantum physics we use today, but it's not the most interesting or powerful frontier of physics. There's another half of quantum physics.
It is the physics that describes multiverses, instantaneous interactions and spooky action at a distance. It's the physics that was originally philosophy, then became fundamental science, and is now breaking into new devices. It's truly the technology of this century and beyond.
When we started studying this "extra" physics, we thought that it was all about quantum particles and their interactions. One of the keys was "entanglement": where two particles interact, and then preserve some connection - irrespective of space or time - until they were measured.
But this physics is not just about particles. At the most fundamental level, quantum physics is telling us about information. The particles are responding to information laws, rather than the other way around.
My own research is intimately connected with understanding and exploiting quantum information.
I just want to mention briefly one project that I'm doing with another RMIT physicist, Dr Brant Gibson, as part of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics.
This is a multi-node Centre. In addition to RMIT, it is led from the University of Adelaide, with Macquarie University and a number of partners world-wide.
One of our projects is the imaging of nano metre sized diamonds in biological systems.
We collect individual photons with state-of-the-art detectors, and apply new theoretical understanding to learn as much as we can about the emitter and its environment. Our goal is to put these probes inside people, perhaps to understand the origins of sensation, or the biological changes that occur when an embryo is fertilised.
This is one aspect of the new quantum engineering: learning everything that could ever be known about a system of interest.
Other aspects of this revolution will be quantum computers to design new drugs.
There will be new generations of sensors, based on fundamental quantum physics, single atoms communicating by single photons.
While we don't really know everything that people will do with quantum, getting quantum devices out of physics labs and into the real world is one way we will transform the future.
And every physics breakthrough has led to new technologies and opportunities.
RMIT has everything we need for practical quantum engineering.
We have the quantum mechanics, the engineers, the facilities, the engagements, but most of all we have the vision to bring them together: RMIT is uniquely placed to drive the transition from quantum physics to quantum engineering.
Our students will be the creators of the new quantum technologies, and they will transform quantum dreams into a reality that we can only guess about.