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William & Mary physicist investigates advanced materials at DARPA

  • Advanced materials research
    Advanced materials research  Ale Lukaszew is putting together a program to investigate the promise of topological materials that could increase the storage capacity of hard drives or other magnetic storage.  Photo courtesy of DARPA
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Physicist Rosa Alejandra “Ale” Lukaszew is serving a two-year term with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Department’s premier technology development agency, but she is maintaining close ties with William & Mary.

“I still meet with my students every so often and I joke with them,” she said. “I tell them that I could tell you what I’m doing but then I’d have to kill you.”

She’s kidding; the vast majority of work DARPA does is unclassified. But Lukaszew can’t speak in too much detail about her work at the Arlington headquarters of DARPA as she is still in the early stages of developing her research portfolio, which will undergo stringent internal review to ensure that it does not aim simply to make incremental technological advances but has the potential to give rise to entirely new capabilities and strategic options relevant to national security.

In Williamsburg, Lukaszew is the Distinguished Virginia Microelectronics Consortium (VMEC) Professor of Physics, with an office and lab in Small Hall. Since January, she has been a program manager in the Defense Sciences Office at the Arlington headquarters of DARPA.

Lukaszew is laying a framework for a potential DARPA program that addresses new approaches to topological materials, particularly those that would lead to improved data-storage uses. Modern computer hardware design has pushed the limits of Moore’s Law, the observation that predicts a regular halving of semiconductor media for computing.

“If you want to increase the storage density in hard drives or any kind of magnetic storage, you can’t go that much smaller because you’re facing what we call the superparamagnetic limit, which is that the pieces of information are so small that they’re not stable,” she explained.

Her DARPA position allows her to seek input from throughout the spectrum of U.S. researchers — private labs as well as those at universities and government facilities — to enlist collaborators in the effort to push materials limits for storage-class memory. Lukaszew is particularly interested in recent literature describing the potential of spin skyrmions, which she said have advanced topological properties that could incorporate more densely packed data without sacrificing stability while keeping power consumption very low.

“That brings an interesting new venue for a complete new generation of memory devices and applications,” she said.

Lukaszew is also interested in pursuing investigation of the properties of two-dimensional quasiparticles known as anyons, which hold promise in the development of quantum computing.

Amid all the new opportunities, Lukaszew says she is happy that Arlington is close enough to maintain ties with her graduate students at William & Mary and hasn’t missed a dissertation defense yet.