For computer semiconductors and modern communications devices, finding more efficient ways of conducting an electrical charge poses exciting possibilities. Devices could be smaller, perform digital tasks more quickly and use less energy.
In order for any of this to be a possibility, physicists had to figure out what happens, electronically, when a material transitions between states, changing from one that doesn’t conduct electricity to one that does. That question has puzzled scientists for 60 years, but a recent breakthrough discovery involving physicists from two national laboratories has lifted the veil on the answer.
“The RIXS beamline is one of the best in the world for this experiment. The technique was really critical.” — Gilberto Fabbris, Argonne National Laboratory
“Physicists were trying to work out what happens as you make the electronic ‘energy gap’ between an insulator and a conductor smaller and smaller,” said Daniel Mazzone, a former Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist now at the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland who led a recent study of the question. Mazzone and his colleagues, including both Brookhaven and Argonne National Laboratory physicists, published their results in February in Nature Communications. “Do you just change a simple insulator into a simple metal where the electrons can move freely, or does something more interesting happen?”
Using the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, a team of Brookhaven researchers worked with their Argonne colleagues to show what previous scientists had only speculated. Under certain conditions, a new magnetic state of matter can be found in which magnetic moments of electrons (also called “spins”) are closely connected to their insulating property. This new magnetic state is called the antiferromagnetic excitonic insulator state.
“An insulator is the opposite of a metal; it’s a material that doesn’t conduct electricity,” said Brookhaven scientist Mark Dean, a co-author on the paper. “The electrons are all jammed in place, like people in a filled amphitheater; they can’t move around.”
To get the electrons to move out of this low or “ground” energy state, they need a big boost in energy. The boost must be big enough to overcome a gap between the ground state and a higher energy level. In very special circumstances, an energy gain can outweigh the energy cost of electrons jumping across the energy gap.
“The energy gap between an insulator and a conductor can be compared somewhat to the trench between a two-lane highway,” said Argonne physicist Mary Upton, a co-author on the paper. “Imagine that one lane is completely congested with cars and the other lane is completely open. By filling in the trench, cars can circulate freely and keep moving. In an antiferromagnetic insulator state, electrons can do the same.”
In their experiment, the collaborative team worked with a material called strontium iridium oxide, which is only barely insulating above room temperature.
“The sample itself already had a very small energy gap, but what we were trying to figure out was if the sample was a normal insulator or if it was already a magnetic excitonic insulator,” said Argonne assistant physicist Gilberto Fabbris, a co-author on the paper. “A magnetic excitonic insulator has the energy electrons needed to move, but a special type of magnetic interaction blocks them, which means the material doesn’t conduct electricity.” Without doing anything except changing the temperature, the team showed that the material was indeed a magnetic excitonic insulator.
Advanced techniques and instruments made it possible for the team to study this phenomenon. The APS’s Resonant Inelastic X-Ray Scattering (RIXS) beamline at 27-ID, for instance, helped the scientists see deep within the material. RIXS uses X-ray beams to measure how much energy and momentum are lost as light creates an excitation (a disturbance, of sorts) of the electrons in a material. It allowed the Brookhaven and Argonne team to measure magnetic interactions and the associated energy cost of moving electrons.
Upton and Fabbris said that a facility such as the APS, which generates exponentially brighter X-ray beams than smaller, laboratory-based machines, is essential to carrying out this measurement.
“The RIXS beamline is one of the best in the world for this experiment,” said Fabbris, “The technique was really critical.”
The APS is currently undergoing a massive upgrade that will increase the brightness of its X-ray beams by up to 500 times. As part of that upgrade, a new RIXS instrument has been installed at 27-ID, expanding the beamline’s capabilities.
The identification of the antiferromagnetic excitonic insulator completes a long journey exploring the fascinating ways electrons choose to arrange themselves in materials. In the future, understanding the connections between spin and charge in such materials could have potential for realizing new technologies.
A version of this release was originally posted by Brookhaven National Laboratory.
About the Advanced Photon Source
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.