Gilbert works to power the future


Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

Matthew Gilbert
Matthew Gilbert

Someone was trying to call ECE Assistant Professor Matthew Gilbert. His iPhone buzzed as it rested on his desk and music began to blare out of the phone’s tiny speakers. Gilbert snatched the phone off the desk, silenced it, and turned around.

“Sorry about that,” he said. But, what Gilbert didn’t realize is that his iPhone going off was the perfect complement to the conversation. The discussion was about research that Gilbert is doing on the Bose-Einstein condensation effect, a phenomenon that one day could change the future of devices like the iPhone.

“If we can get this condensate phase I am working on to occur at room temperature, it would use much less power. So, we’ve done some back of the envelope calculations, and we showed that if an iPhone battery lasts seven hours, with this new method, you could operate that same phone for hundreds of days about 50-100 times faster,” said Gilbert.

In the Bose-Einstein condensation effect, the constituent particles flow without resistance. Gilbert is studying the effect through the interaction of mono-layers of graphene, a substance made up of layers of carbon one atom thick. By taking two atomically thin layers of graphene and placing them close together, with only a thin spacer material to separate the two layers and using electrostatic gates to manipulate carrier densities, one layer will become extremely electron-like and the other hole-like. Eventually, a phase transformation occurs and bosons are formed. Bosons are particles that obey Bose-Einstein statistics.  These bosons are formed only at specific temperatures that, in the case of graphene, may be much higher than usual. What makes the research interesting is that it attempts to study phenomena, Bose-Einstein condensation, that is normally extremely fragile under not so fragile conditions.

And being able to harness the Bose-Einstein condensation effect at room temperature could revolutionize the performance of everyday electronic devices.  MOSFETs (metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors) are common in most electronic devices. “Essentially, they are little binary logic switches,” said Gilbert.  

However, MOSFETs have limitations due to the power required.  “If we can get this condensate phase to occur at room temperature, instead of moving one electron at time like a MOSFET, we can move many, which uses much less power,” said Gilbert.

Gilbert foresees his research being put to use in a variety of devices. One potential application is the use of the Bose-Einstein condensation effect to power unmanned aircraft for the military. With the ability to stay in flight for weeks or even months, Gilbert’s research could provide a low-cost way to power aircraft and other devices without having to risk human life.

Having already accomplished quite a bit in his short time at Illinois, Gilbert gives much of the credit for his being able to achieve so much to the atmosphere he has encountered in his first few months at the University. “This place is great. It’s an incredibly unique place where you get the best in physics and the best in engineering,” said Gilbert. “There’s a real air of collaboration here that you don’t find at other universities.”

In his brief time at Illinois, Gilbert has also begun work on deciphering the properties of complex metal oxides, another system that undergoes odd phase transitions at high temperatures. Gilbert is also interested in exploring quantum computing. And, while Gilbert may have hit the ground running in his research, other areas of his new life at Illinois have taken some getting used to. “The weather here is terrible sometimes,” said Gilbert, who has lived most of his life Arizona, Texas, and Northern California. “I moved here in January right before the negative 17 degree day. The first day my hand literally went numb handling my iPhone.”

Perhaps with the new technology Gilbert is developing, there will one day be an app for that.