Former Armidale resident Dr Rose Ahlefeldt, a physicist at the Australian National University in Canberra, was named ACT Scientist of the Year.
“It’s nice to get some recognition that my research is important to the general community,” Dr Ahlefeldt, 32, said.
She is using crystals to store memory for quantum computers, the supercomputers of the future.
The award recognises the achievements of an up-and-coming scientist, and celebrates Canberra’s excellence in scientific research and innovation.
In her year-long role, Dr Ahlefeldt hopes she will be an inspiration for other young people, particularly women.
"If you want to imagine yourself in a career, it really helps to see someone a little bit like you in that career,” she said. “If you're interested in science, seeing other women as scientists and interested in research shows 'Maybe I can do that', and then you can start working out how you make that your career.”
Parents Lyn and Erik Ahlefeldt, Armidale residents, are delighted.
“We’re amazingly proud,” Lyn said. “She’s put in a lot of work starting with her schooling here. It’s been a progression of wonderful experiences for us.”
Dr Ahlefeldt herself didn't expect to become a scientist.
"I grew up in Armidale, and we didn't have that much science experience,” she said. “I had no idea really what a scientist was, until pretty late in my time at university. I was lucky to end up as a scientist, given it's not a career I'd ever considered when I was a child.”
Science, though, always interested her.
“I really liked learning things, finding out how things in the world worked,” she said. “I also spent a lot of time making stuff, and building things. All of these are skills I actually use now.
“Science is one of the things I really enjoyed at school, so when I was choosing subjects for university, I thought maybe I'd do science. I had no idea where that was going to take me, but I progressed along, and eventually developed this idea that I could stay as a scientist.”
After finishing her HSC at Armidale High School in 2003, she was awarded a National Undergraduate Scholarship to ANU, where she studied a Bachelor of Philosophy (PhB) in Science. She was awarded the University Medal at the end of her degree, and completed her PhD at ANU.
“Once I'd finished my PhD, I went overseas,” Dr Ahlefeldt said. “I had applied for a Fulbright scholarship; I found out I'd got that. At the same time, I was offered a job in France. I decided to take both of them up.
“I went to France for a year. It was eye-opening. I was living in Paris, a much bigger city than either Armidale or Canberra. I had to learn French, and they do research in a different way.”
She then went on her Fulbright Scholarship to Montana State University.
““I lived in a little town called Bozeman – only slightly bigger than Armidale, and very isolated up in the mountains.”
She is now Research Fellow in the Research School of Physics and Engineering at ANU, designing memory for quantum computers.
These supercomputers of the future use sub-atomic particles (which can exist in more than one state at a time) to solve problems today’s computers can’t, faster and more easily: factorizing ten-digit numbers (useful for encryption and decryption), discovering new drugs, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
“The basic problem with quantum information,” Dr Ahlefeldt said, “is that the quantumness decays very quickly, so it's very hard to store. Normally, in most materials, you can hold quantum information for a millisecond, a thousandth of a second.”
The world record for quantum storage in any solid is six hours, enough for nearly any application scientists want.
“Now that we’ve solved the storage time,” Dr Ahlefeldt said, “the issue is how to store a lot of information at once.”
The snag: at the moment, only a single bit can be stored. Your phone stores about a trillion bits.
“We can build prototype devices; we can build little quantum memories that can store a little bit of information, but it would be really nice to store all the information you need for a quantum computer."
Dr Ahlefeldt’s solution is to use rare earth crystals (the ones lurking at the bottom of the periodic table, like cerium, dysprosium, praesodymium, thulium, and ytterbium) to design a quantum hard drive.
"I'm trying to work out how to store more bits of information in one of these crystals, without degrading the information at the same time,” Dr Ahlefeldt said.
"That involves taking the information from the computer – which starts off as pulses of light – and trying to store it in a material which will last for a long time.
“We get the atoms in a particular kind of crystal to absorb that light, so that they hold the quantum information.
“We try really hard to make sure the atoms interact with nothing around them, so the information doesn't degrade. We put a lot of work into turning off the interactions between the atom and the environment.”
As well as using rare-earth materials, which don’t interact with the environment, scientists can also cool the temperature down to almost absolute zero (-270 degrees), which keeps the atoms still, and use a magnetic field to desensitize them to the environment.
What will the world of quantum computers look like?
"I really don't know,” Dr Ahlefeldt said. “We've identified quite a few uses for quantum computers, but it's going to be the same thing with a lot of new technology. We're not really going to know how we can use it until we actually have it.
“That's the exciting thing! We build these things, and then we might see them used in a completely different way to what we imagine."