Dr James Quach lives and breathes physics – specifically, quantum physics. As our Science Leader in Quantum Science and Technologies and the Team Leader of Quantum Batteries, he has a keen focus on pushing the boundaries of energy storage. James is currently immersed in groundbreaking work to develop a world-first quantum battery.
While still in the theoretical stages, this ambitious endeavour has the potential to upend our conventional understandings of energy storage. Our research suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, quantum batteries will charge faster the bigger they are. This is unlike their lithium counterparts in the world of classical physics, which take longer to charge as they increase in size.
James is also organising the inaugural International Conference on Quantum Energy (ICQE), which will be held in Melbourne in December 2023. ICQE will bring together some of the greatest minds in the field to explore the role of quantum in addressing the global energy challenges of the future.
What can you tell me about your early years?
I grew up in Melbourne and completed my studies there. I initially did a triple degree in computer science, engineering and commerce. But when I left uni and started working as a management consultant, I realised I really wanted to do physics. So, I went back and did a PhD in condensed matter.
This led to an offer of a Fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at the University of Tokyo, where I spent two years. After that, I took up a Marie Curie Fellowship at the Institute of Photonics Science in Barcelona.
What’s an average day at work for you?
I do a lot of the things everyone else does at work: emails, administration and management. I also have lots of meetings with people here and across the world about different projects. I lead a team of scientists developing the quantum battery and also quantum robotics. But first and foremost, I’m a theoretician, so wherever I can, I spend my time coming up with theories. Then I do the maths and write the code to check whether they work.
What do you do in your spare time?
I’ve got a young family, so I don’t know what spare time is! However, I have to admit that even when I’m at home, no matter what else I’m doing, I’m usually thinking about physics. I feel comfortable and relaxed then. Physics is my happy place! I love the episode of The Big Bang Theory where Leonard and Sheldon say, ‘Let’s buckle down and work!’ And then they stand up and start thinking. That really resonates with me!
How do you explain quantum to non-scientists?
I normally say that in quantum we look at the fundamental nature of things – of reality – but we also study how we could apply these theories to do something useful. What’s fascinating about quantum is that it shows that the laws that underpin reality are actually highly counter intuitive – almost mysterious. This curious situation comes about because the classical laws of physics and the laws of quantum physics are incompatible with each other. When you try and make the two consistent, it’s very difficult. This turns so many things that we thought we knew about the world upside down. For example, in quantum physics, you can teleport from one location to another, without traversing the space in between. Of course, this doesn’t happen on a day-to-day basis. This makes quantum all the more intriguing and exciting.
What are your goals for quantum batteries?
Ultimately, I’d like to see quantum batteries as a source of mobile energy that we could use in our phones and our cars. They potentially offer faster charging than anything that can be achieved now. However, they are still at a very early research and development stage.
I’m aiming to bring this theory off the blackboard and into the lab and try to build a device that does this. If I can demonstrate this in a small device in the next three to five years, then the next stage would be to scale up to larger devices.
I’m also interested in the potential of quantum batteries to power quantum computers. It's only theoretical at this stage because it's such a new concept and quantum computers are at a very early stage. But we need to start thinking about how these devices will be powered.
What is the biggest challenge to making your quantum battery a reality?
The key challenge arises when we start to scale quantum devices up. A fundamental characteristic of quantum mechanics is that it works on an incredibly small scale – at the level of atoms and subatomic particles. As a device gets bigger, it begins to interact with its environment more. This interaction can cause it to ‘decohere’ from its delicate quantum state. This can see the system start behaving according to the classical laws of physics and lose its special quantum behaviours.
As the driving force behind the first International Conference on Quantum Energy, what potential do you see?
At its core, quantum mechanics is about the transfer of energy at the most fundamental level, so it’s ideally placed to make a massive contribution to some of our most pressing global energy challenges. I want to bring together some of the greatest minds on earth to see how quantum technology can help us to solve some of these intractable problems. This three-day conference is designed to offer a comprehensive cross-disciplinary program dedicated to advancing fundamental understanding and increasing technical expertise in quantum systems for things like energy harvesting, conversion, storage and transport.
What qualities do you need to be a good quantum scientist?
Number one would have to be creativity. You need a special sort of creativity though, because you can’t just do what you want. You’re bound by the laws of nature, so you need to be creative to find your way around them. Or you need to work out how you can use them to help you. Necessity is definitely the mother of invention! You also need persistence because – more often than not – you fail. It’s not for the fainthearted. And of course, you need an analytical and mathematical sort of mind.
What would you say to someone who wants to pursue a career in quantum?
If you’re pursuing it out of a love of science, then quantum mechanics is an abundant and rich field to work in. Right now, we are on the cusp of a new era in science, and I think quantum mechanics is at the forefront. It’s a very exciting area to get into.