phil richerme

Using the power of simulation to answer big questions about quantum materials

A physics lab and a woodshop might seem worlds apart, but for one professor at Indiana University, they have something in common: They’re both places where you can get your hands dirty.

“I’m an experimentalist, not a theorist, which means I like to work with my hands,” says Phil Richerme, an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics. “I’m always very engaged in building things.”

Outside of physics, that interest in creation has translated into crafting restoration antique furniture and playing the oboe. (An undergraduate music minor, Richerme met his wife, Lauren Kapalka Richerme, while pursuing a graduate degree in physics at Harvard, where she was earning a master’s degree in education. Kapalka Richerme is now an associate professor of music education in the IU Jacobs School of Music.) At work, it means Richerme is developing a quantum simulator in his basement lab.

That simulator is at the heart of a growing quantum evolution at IU, serving as a foundation for several important research projects underway, including research funded by grants received from the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy in Fall 2019.

The simulator consists of a vacuum chamber, metals, special glass, lasers, and quantum bits, which are akin to traditional computer bits but encode exponentially larger amounts of information. Unlike a quantum computer—something that companies such as Google and IBM and others are actively working on—a quantum simulator is a “specially tailored piece of equipment that can perform certain functions exponentially well,” Richerme explains.