Solving a complex problem quickly requires careful tradeoffs – and simulating the behavior of materials is no exception. To get answers that predict molecular workings feasibly, scientists must swap in mathematical approximations that speed computation at accuracy’s expense.
But magnetism, electrical conductivity and other properties can be quite delicate, says Paul R.C. Kent of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory. These properties depend on quantum mechanics, the movements and interactions of myriad electrons and atoms that form materials and determine their properties. Researchers who study such features must model large groups of atoms and molecules rather than just a few. This problem’s complexity demands boosting computational tools’ efficiency and accuracy.
That’s where a method called quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) modeling comes in. Many other techniques approximate electrons’ behavior as an overall average, for example, rather than considering them individually. QMC enables accounting for the individual behavior of all of the electrons without major approximations, reducing systematic errors in simulations and producing reliable results, Kent says.
Kent’s interest in QMC dates back to his Ph.D. research at Cambridge University in the 1990s. At ORNL, he recently returned to the method because advances in both supercomputer hardware and in algorithms had allowed researchers to improve its accuracy.
“We can do new materials and a wider fraction of elements across the periodic table,” Kent says. “More importantly, we can start to do some of the materials and properties where the more approximate methods that we use day to day are just unreliable.”
Even with these advances, simulations of these types of materials, ones that include up to a few hundred atoms and thousands of electrons, requires computational heavy lifting. Kent leads a DOE Basic Energy Sciences Center, the Center for Predictive Simulations of Functional Materials (CPSFM) that includes researchers from ORNL, Argonne National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley and North Carolina State University.
Their work is supported by a DOE Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiments (INCITE) allocation of 140 million processor hours, split between Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility’s Titan and Argonne Leadership Computing Facility’s Mira supercomputers. Both computing centers are DOE Office of Science user facilities.
To take QMC to the next level, Kent and colleagues start with materials such as vanadium dioxide that display unusual electronic behavior. At cooler temperatures, this material insulates against the flow of electricity. But at just above room temperature, vanadium dioxide abruptly changes its structure and behavior.
Suddenly this material becomes metallic and conducts electricity efficiently. Scientists still don’t understand exactly how and why this occurs. Factors such as mechanical strain, pressure or doping the materials with other elements also induce this rapid transition from insulator to conductor.
However, if scientists and engineers could control this behavior, these materials could be used as switches, sensors or, possibly, the basis for new electronic devices. “This big change in conductivity of a material is the type of thing we’d like to be able to predict reliably,” Kent says.
Laboratory researchers also are studying these insulator-to-conductors with experiments. That validation effort lends confidence to the predictive power of their computational methods in a range of materials. The team has built open-source software, known as QMCPACK, that is now available online and on all of the DOE Office of Science computational facilities.
Read more: Quantum predictions
Image courtesy of phys.org
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