Ghimire awarded NSF CAREER Award for quantum science research on synthesis and study of magnetic topological materials

Nirmal Jeevi Ghimire awarded NSF Career Award for quantum science research on synthesis and study of magnetic topological materials
Nirmal Jeevi Ghimire awarded NSF Career Award for quantum science research on synthesis and study of magnetic topological materials. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University’s Nirmal Jeevi Ghimire has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his research into the design of materials for magnetic and electronic topological properties that can pave the way to thinner, faster and more energy-efficient devices. 

Ghimire, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within Mason’s College of Science, will receive a total of more $560,000 in grant money from the NSF for his work in synthesizing and studying topological materials where an underlying crystal structure of the material allows the interplay between the material’s magnetism and electronic structure to influence one or the other, thus allowing emergence of novel properties, such as quantum anomalous Hall effect, which can play a crucial role in designing the building block of future technologies such as quantum computing. 

Ghimire likened this next potential technological step from the current Silicon Age to the leap from the Stone Age to the Bronze and then Iron Ages. 

“The Stone Age didn’t end because of lack of stones—it ended because people found better materials when they found bronze and then iron,” he said, recounting the famous quote. “We need new materials to go past the silicon-based technology that has hit a limit in terms of making thinner, faster and more energy-efficient devices.” 

By designing and changing the crystal structure of the material, Ghimire seeks to change the magnetism and influence the electronic topological properties.  

“This research examines this issue of the fundamental science, how can we influence the electronic properties by changing the magnetic properties or vice versa and find a system that can potentially be used in these future spintronic devices,” Ghimire explained. 

Most modern-day computers and microelectronics make use of the semiconductor silicon, which exploits the electron’s charge to store, transmit, and process information. Although silicon has been instrumental in technological advancements over the past several decades, use of the electron’s intrinsic spin, in addition to its charge, holds promise for thinner, faster and more energy-efficient devices. Discovering material that better serves as a platform for the process has long been the challenge. 

Using crystal materials he and his team will grow in a lab, Ghimire hope to then change the structure of that material, altering its magnetism and its influence on electronic topological properties. 

Their work could lead to critical advances that could shape future technology and quantum information science and pave the way for quantum computing. 

Among the goals of the project, which is expected to begin in August, is to bring materials synthesis and characterization to students and the broader community in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area through the recruitment of both undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented groups, curriculum development in quantum materials, and workshop organization on materials synthesis and characterization for undergraduate and graduate students. 

The novel materials synthesized in his lab will not only be important to Ghimire’s research activities, but crucial for the Physics and Astronomy Department’s condensed matter program as a whole and the university’s vision in the development of research activities in quantum materials, said department chair Paul T. So. Materials synthesis is one program that can quickly develop collaborations and enhance both theoretical and other experimental research efforts. 

Ghimire and his team will collaborate with scientists both within and outside of Mason. 

“Students and postdocs trained during this work will get the direct benefit, and Mason will have impact, in preparing the next generation in the synthesis of quantum materials,” So said. “Sharing of the materials synthesized will help grow Mason’s collaboration to national and international institutions and research centers. This is particularly important for a young institution like ours.” 

The project also seeks to engage high school students—who may not see science career paths represented in their communities—in research through existing K-12 programs as Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program and STEM Accelerator Program

“We want to do good fundamental science, and it feels really good to be recognized for this important work,” Ghimire said.