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Reform seen as key for innovation

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-15 09:14
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Claudia Felser, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solid.

Cooperation with China vital for international scientific development, German scientist says

International science and technology cooperation with China is vital for pushing the boundaries of science and creating innovations and solutions to benefit human societies, a noted German scientist said.

Encouraging open and interdisciplinary collaboration and enhancing support for basic research and female scientists are conducive to China's transformation into an innovative nation, Claudia Felser, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids, told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up. Having visited China over a dozen of times since 2007, Felser said she has been very impressed by the country's progress in science and technology over the years, and the quantity and quality of scientific talents it has produced.

"Many of my colleagues and students in Germany are Chinese," she said, adding that the institute has had a tradition of maintaining strong academic interactions with its Chinese peers.

Reform and opening-up are significant for scientific development and international cooperation, Felser said. Since 2007, she has collaborated with Chinese researchers from the Institute of Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the cutting-edge field of quantum materials, with the shared goal of creating new materials with distinctive qualities to serve the major strategic needs of countries.

"The Institute of Physics is one of the best research agencies in this field, especially in topological and superconductor physics," she said. Successful collaboration is based on sustained academic excellence and trust, and the friendship built through long-term cooperation can "make science more fun and efficient", she added.

China is now "one of the global front-runners in quantum materials", thanks to its wealth of quality mathematical and physics professionals doing innovative research, Felser said.

A popular application for quantum materials is quantum computing, a rapidly emerging technology that harnesses the laws of quantum mechanics to solve complex calculations that are impossible for even the most powerful classical supercomputers to solve, she said.

According to the scientist, one of the biggest challenges of quantum computers is decoherence — external disturbances that interfere with the delicate quantum states of qubits, leading to the creation and accumulation of errors.

A qubit is the basic unit of information in quantum computers for storage and calculation, similar to the ones and zeros used in standard computers.

To create and manipulate qubits, many types of quantum computers require extreme conditions, such as strong magnetic fields, superconducting materials or extremely low temperatures. These factors have severely limited the practicality and scalability of these machines.

Fortunately, these conditions can be realized at some scientific facilities, such as the Synergetic Extreme Condition User Facility in Huairou, Beijing. "If we want to make a stable quantum computer, we need to make stable qubits and, therefore, we need new materials for the job," Felser explained.

However, she said, making suitable quantum materials for stable quantum computers may take decades since they require breakthroughs in basic sciences and production methods.

On a closer time scale, advanced quantum materials can be used in everyday life, such as catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into valuable chemical products, new batteries to store energy, and devices to convert heat into electricity, she said. "We may see prototypes of these technologies in the near future."

New quantum materials may improve the efficiency of waste-to-energy power plants, thus reducing carbon emissions and energy losses, Felser said, adding that this technology could help China achieve its goals of reaching peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and becoming carbon neutral before 2060.

"Technological breakthroughs are driven by international cooperation," she said, emphasizing that academic dialogue and exchanges, especially among young scientists and students, are essential means of cooperation that can facilitate the flow of ideas, which can lead to new collaborative projects and innovations.

Meanwhile, empowering female scientists by giving them more career opportunities and financial and social support would facilitate more contributions to basic sciences and technological discoveries, Felser said.

"Many bright female scientists have to choose between family and career, which can be tough. But there are ways to overcome it," she said. "We, as a society, should tap into the potential of 50 percent of our workforce and let brilliant minds shine."


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