Revealing How to Make Topological Insulators
Materials science has operated by trial-and-error since someone first threw something in a fire to see what would happen. For just one success, like Teflon or Kevlar or Nylon, there were potentially hundreds of failures that may have been close, but not there yet, or just completely wrong. Thanks to very advanced databases and intelligent analysis though, this is changing. We now know enough about what causes certain properties that we can predict a particular material's behavior, or design a material around a behavior. Now researchers at Duke University are doing the same with topological insulators, a class of manmade materials with rather unique characteristics.
While they are called topological insulators, they are actually very good at conducting. In some cases they actually conduct more efficiently than modern wires. Unlike modern wires though, topological insulators only conduct on their surface. In the actual volume of the material, currents are blocked, like in a regular insulator. Potentially these materials can be used in quantum electronic devices.
What the Duke researchers did was take a database of some 2000 topological insulator formulas and ran a 'genetic' profile. Like polymers (though not necessarily to the same degree) we have the ability to predict the properties of a topological insulator based on its makeup and can design a compound around specific, desired properties. Where before the database only stored known information, it is now possible to have it generate instructions on how to create an entirely new kind of topological insulator. Even though these materials are still being discovered and understood, this work could propel them forward as researchers create a much wider variety of them to experiment with.