CHAT Vijay Balakrishna Shenoy, winner of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, talks about his work which could lead to, besides other things, the invention of quantum computers
Vijay Balakrishna Shenoy is one of the people working on the cutting edge of scientific innovation. An Associate Professor at the Centre for Condensed Matter Theory at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, the Kochi-born condensed matter physicist is also the recipient of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in the Physical Sciences category for 2013.
The award recognises the work of Indian scientists under 45; in Vijay’s case his work on ‘fermions in synthetic non-Abelian gauge fields and the prediction of a ‘rashbon’ mediated Bose-Einstein condensation’. In simpler terms, his work could someday lead to superconductors that can work at room temperatures, which could in turn facilitate the invention of quantum computers and increasingly efficient transmission of electricity, vital in a nation such as ours.
Superconductivity is a tricky field, with great potential that throws up equally daunting challenges. For the uninitiated, superconductivity is a phenomenon where a system has zero electrical resistance, thus making it extremely efficient for lossless electricity transmission and any device which benefits from this transmission. Superconductors are now used in powerful electromagnets such as MRI machines, among other applications.
But one of the aforementioned challenges thrown up by them is that most known materials only attain superconductivity at extremely low temperatures, with even ‘high temperature’ superconductors requiring liquid nitrogen cooling, making them an expensive prospect.
If Vijay’s theory materialises into practicality, it is theoretically possible to create superconductors at room temperature. “My work deals with condensed matter physics, where we cool certain materials down to almost absolute zero temperatures (minus 273 degrees Celsius). With cold atoms we can create near perfect systems, and using this principle I have theorised, given the right conditions, the creation of a particle called the ‘rashbon’. The rashbon could be the key to attaining superconductivity at room temperatures,” he explains over the phone from Bangalore.
An alumnus of top tier institutions such as IIT Chennai, Georgia Institute of Technology and Brown University, Vijay returned to India soon after finishing his education and has been passing on his knowledge since. And when it comes to his students, the 42-year-old has nothing but praise, “We have outstanding students, who are highly motivated and can compete with the best in the world. But the need of the hour is to set up more institutions that set high standards of education.”
Vijay lived in Kochi till he was in Class V, and was a student at NSS High School, Tripunithura and Sree Rama Varma High School. His parents still reside in Tripunithura, and his wife Gopika hails from the city as well.
As conversation turns to the situation of scientists within the country, Vijay paints an upbeat picture. “The advantage of being a scientist in India is that there is a lot of freedom and encouragement for independent thinking. When you look at Indian scientists, there are definitely pockets of excellence, but to carry out experimental research, you need funding, and that is an issue,” says Vijay. He elaborates by mentioning that countries like China invest heavily in physical sciences and fund multiple research projects to encourage competition and faster results.
So what application of his work is he most excited about? “I think it has to be the quantum computer, which will be incredibly powerful and usher in a new era of innovation,” he says before admitting that the reality of such a superconductor is still decades away, “The problem now is to find the right materials to create this phenomenon without a cold atom system, where we cannot control the outcome as effectively. But hopefully there will be breakthroughs sometime in the near future,” he signs off, presumably off to bring the future a little closer to reality.