Physics Professor Philip Kim Studies Technologies on an Atomic Scale

For Philip Kim, nanoscience is a very big deal.

“These are really big picture questions we’re trying to answer here,” said Kim, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics. “How do things behave when they become tiny? How does the quantum physics play a role when we’re looking at very small objects?”

Kim, who joined the faculty this school year after 14 years of teaching and researching at Columbia University, studies physical phenomena in nanoscale materials. Since he made the decision to return to Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in physics, Kim has been physically building his lab in the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering. With a newly assembled team of researchers, Kim has constructed the equipment and facilities comprising his lab.

“In this lab, he builds tiny little devices and then he makes measurements on those materials, which require rather special conditions,” said Masahiro Morii, Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department. “All these things require sophisticated equipment that you can’t just go out and buy, so he has to build that equipment himself.”

An experimental condensed matter physicist, Kim focuses on technologies at an atomic scale. He studies tiny material systems to detect and test new phenomena that arise only at this minute, “mesoscopic” level of investigation. The equipment Kim requires ranges from cryostats, high-powered refrigerating chambers, to superconducting magnets 300,000 times the strength of Earth’s magnetic field.


“Certain instruments require specific electrical and plumbing conditions,” Kim said. “I’m building new instrumentation that requires tight spaces and controls, since I’m synthesizing and building low-dimensional materials.”

To transport his lab from New York to its new Cambridge home, Kim had to carefully disassemble, ship, and reassemble his apparatuses. According to Jesse Crossno, one of the graduate students working in Kim’s lab, this assembly process is fairly standard in the applied physics community.

“Most of us end up building our own projects in grad school,” Crossno said. “The way Philip runs his lab is great because he gives us guidance and suggests areas of interest, but he really lets us construct our own thesis.”

In addition to building his lab’s instrumentation, Kim also mandated the reconstruction of his lab’s physical design.

“I wanted to create more of an interactive space,” Kim said.

To this end, Kim installed glass walls, covered with the rainbow scrawls of equations and sketches. This design choice seems to borrow from companies in Silicon Valley, an industry Kim aspires to partner with one day. Electronic applications of physics principles have driven the growth of silicon-powered technologies, Kim said. If Kim discovers an alternative material system to silicon, which forms the basis of most technologies today, his research could open up a host of new nanotechnological capabilities that existing silicon devices do not allow.

“The hope is we want to find new material platforms and new physical phenomena that can be useful to build up future electronics,” Kim said. “It’s an ambitious goal, and I’m not sure we can really realize it, but we should find a lot of interesting science on the way.”

—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at Follow her on Twitter@jessicabarzilay.


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