• Research
  • Condensed Matter Physics

In a surprising new discovery, alpha-tin, commonly called gray tin, exhibits a novel electronic phase when its crystal structure is strained, putting it in a rare new class of 3D materials called topological Dirac semimetals (TDSs). Only two other TDS materials are known to exist, discovered as recently as 2013. Alpha-tin now joins this class as its only simple-element member.

This discovery holds promise for novel physics and many potential applications in technology. The findings are the work of Caizhi Xu, a physics graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, working under U. of I. Professor Tai-Chang Chiang and in collaboration with scientists at the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and six other institutions internationally.

  • Accolades

Assistant Professors Verena Martinez Outschoorn and Liang Yang of the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have each been selected for 2017 NSF CAREER Awards. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award of the National Science Foundation is conferred annually in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars by integrating outstanding research with excellent education. Receipt of this honor also reflects great promise for a lifetime of leadership within recipients’ respective fields.

  • In the Media

Mason says, “there are so few of us, people get the impression that we are like unicorns – either non-existent or magical.” We are far from non-existent, but I find women of color to be quite magical. However, as Jesse Williams says, “Just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

  • Outreach

It’s up to you and your team to save the free world from evil forces plotting its destruction, and you have precisely 60 minutes to do it. You must find out what happened to Professor Schrödenberg, a University of Illinois physicist who disappeared after developing a top-secret quantum computer that can crack any digital-security encryption code in the world.  Unfortunately, the previous groups of special agents assigned to the case disappeared while investigating the very room in which you now find yourself locked up, Schrödenberg’s secret lab.

LabEscape is a new science-themed escape room now open at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, testing the puzzle-solving skills of groups of up to six participants at a time. Escape rooms, a new form of entertainment cropping up in cities across the U.S. and around the globe, provide in-person mystery-adventure experiences that have been compared to living out a video-game or movie script. A team of participants is presented with a storyline and locked into a room with only one hour to find and decipher a sequence of interactive puzzles that will unlock the door and complete the mission. Two escape room businesses are already in operation in the area, C-U Adventures in Time and Space in Urbana and Brainstorm Escapes in Champaign.


  • Research
  • AMO/Quantum Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics

Topological insulators, an exciting, relatively new class of materials, are capable of carrying electricity along the edge of the surface, while the bulk of the material acts as an electrical insulator. Practical applications for these materials are still mostly a matter of theory, as scientists probe their microscopic properties to better understand the fundamental physics that govern their peculiar behavior.

Using atomic quantum-simulation, an experimental technique involving finely tuned lasers and ultracold atoms about a billion times colder than room temperature, to replicate the properties of a topological insulator, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has directly observed for the first time the protected boundary state (the topological soliton state) of the topological insulator trans-polyacetylene. The transport properties of this organic polymer are typical of topological insulators and of the Su-Schrieffer-Heeger (SSH) model.

Physics graduate students Eric Meier and Fangzhao Alex An, working with Professor Bryce Gadway, developed a new experimental method, an engineered approach that allows the team to probe quantum transport phenomena.

The future of Physics

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