Every millisecond, atoms and molecules interact together as chemical reactions inside our body, the world, and the universe. Understanding these interactions allows us to gain insight into what makes us, and the universe, exist on a fundamental level. However, investigating processes at the atomic scale requires superhuman instruments.  

The Theoretical Physics Group at Curtin University is getting help from NCI’s Supercomputer, Gadi. Over the last 30 years, the team has developed the most accurate techniques for modelling quantum collisions in the world. Now using Gadi, one of Australia’s most powerful supercomputers, they run large-scale calculations to predict the outcomes of the quantum-scale collisions between subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules. 

The team is led by Professor Igor Bray, along with Professor Dmitry Fursa, Professor Alisher Kadyrov, Dr Liam Scarlett, Dr Corey Plowman, and their seven PhD candidates. One of the many applications for their work is predicting the emission spectra from plasmas in fusion reactors or in interstellar space. This work allows researchers to study the internal properties of the plasmas that cannot be directly measured because of astronomical distances or limitations of working with equipment such as traditional plasma probes.  

Professor Bray, Professor Fursa and Dr Scarlett were recipients of the 2022 Australasian Leadership Computing Grants (ALCG) supported by the Australian Government through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS)

As one of four successful applications, the project was awarded almost 140 million units of computing time on Gadi, equivalent to about 20,000 years of constant calculations on a typical desktop computer.  

As atomic and molecular collisions are abundant throughout the universe, the work of the Theoretical Physics Group has numerous applications. The comprehensive datasets produced from their projects will be highly sought after by the likes of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and the James Webb Space Telescope. ITER is the largest scientific project on the planet and is an important step in using nuclear fusion technology to generate clean and renewable energy. The James Webb telescope is the successor to the Hubble space telescope and can take highly accurate measurements of the universe including molecular hydrogen in interstellar gas clouds. This data, alongside the results from the Curtin group, will be used to study star formation and the evolution of the universe. 

This area of research has received further attention, with Dr Scarlett successfully receiving more than $345,000 from the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) funding. In the same award round, the group also received two Discovery Project grants worth a combined $800,000. 

Predicting the outcomes of quantum collisions on the atomic scale requires calculating millions of equations simultaneously, which would be impossible without the use of high-powered supercomputers such as Gadi.