Down the rabbit hole: how electrons travel through exotic new material

Down the rabbit hole: how electrons travel through exotic new material image
May 4, 2016 | Source: Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research, Princeton

Researchers at Princeton University have observed a bizarre behavior in a strange new crystal that could hold the key for future electronic technologies. Unlike most materials in which electrons travel on the surface, in these new materials the electrons sink into the depths of the crystal through special conductive channels.“It is like these electrons go down a rabbit hole and show up on the opposite surface,” saidAli Yazdani, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics. “You don’t find anything else like this in other materials.”The research was published in the journal Science.Crystal structure of tantalum arsenide (TaAs), with Ta in blue and As in green. Image credit: Yazdani et al., Princeton University.Yazdani and his colleagues discovered the odd behavior while studying electrons in a crystal made of layers of tantalum and arsenic. The material, called a Weyl semi-metal, behaves both like a metal, which conducts electrons, and an insulator, which blocks them. A better understanding of these and other “topological” materials someday could lead to new, faster electronic devices.The team’s experimental results suggest that the surface electrons plunge into the crystal only when traveling at a certain speed and direction of travel called the Weyl momentum, said Yazdani. “It is as if you have an electron on one surface, and it is cruising along, and when it hits some special value of momentum, it sinks into the crystal and appears on the opposite surface,” he said.These special values of momentum, also called Weyl points, can be thought of as portals where the electrons can depart from the surface and be conducted to the opposing surface. The theory predicts that the points come in pairs, so that a departing electron will make the return trip through the partner point.The team decided to explore the behavior of these electrons following research, published inScience last year by another Princeton team and separately by two independent groups, revealing that electrons in Weyl semi-metals are quite unusual. For example, their experiments implied that while most surface electrons create a wave pattern that resembles the spreading rings that ripple out when a stone is thrown into a pond, the surface electrons in the new materials should make only a half circle, earning them the name “Fermi arcs.”To get a more direct look at the patterns of electron flow in Weyl semi-metals, postdoctoral researcher Hiroyuki Inoue and graduate student András Gyenis in Yazdani’s lab, with help from graduate student Seong Woo Oh, used a highly sensitive instrument called a scanning tunneling microscope, one of the few tools that can observe electron waves on a crystal surface.

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