When current comes in discrete packages: Viennese scientists unravel the quantum properties of the carbon material graphene
In 2010 the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of the exceptional material graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. But graphene research did not stop there. New interesting properties of this material are still being found. An international team of researchers has now explained the peculiar behaviour of electrons moving through narrow constrictions in a graphene layer. The results have been published in the journal Nature Communications.
The Electron is a Wave
"When electrical current flows through graphene, we should not imagine the electrons as little balls rolling through the material", says Florian Libisch from TU Wien (Vienna), who led the theoretical part of the research project. The electrons swash through the graphene as a long wave front, the wavelength can be a hundred times larger than the space between two adjacent carbon atoms. "The electron is not confined to one particular carbon atom, in some sense it is located everywhere at the same time", says Libisch.
The team studied the behaviour of electrons squeezing through a narrow constriction in a graphene sheet. "The wider the constriction, the larger the electron flux - but as it turns out, the relationship between the width of the constriction, the energy of the electrons and the electric current is quite complex", says Florian Libisch. "When we make the constriction wider, the electric current does not increase gradually, it jumps at certain points. This is a clear indication of quantum effects."
If the wavelength of the electron is so large that it does not fit through the constriction, the electron flux is very low. "When the energy of the electron is increased, its wavelength decreases", explains Libisch. "At some point, one wavelength fits through the constriction, then two wavelengths, then three - this way the electron flux increases in characteristic steps." The electric current is not a continuous quantity, it is quantized.
Theory and Experiment
This effect can also be observed in other materials. Detecting it in graphene was much more difficult, because its complex electronic properties lead to a multitude of additional effects, interfering with each other. The experiments were performed at the group of Christoph Stampfer at the RWTH Aachen (Germany), theoretical calculations and computer simulations were performed in Vienna by Larisa Chizhova and Florian Libisch at the group of Joachim Burgdörfer.
For the experiments, the graphene sheets hat to be etched into shape with nanometre precision. "Protecting the graphene layer by sandwiching it between atomic layers of hexagonal boron nitride is critical for demonstrating the quantized nature of current in graphene" explains Christoph Stampfer. Current through the devices is then measured at extremely low temperatures. "We use liquid helium to cool our samples, otherwise the fragile quantum effects are washed out by thermal fluctuations" says Stampfer. Simulating the experiment poses just as much of a challenge. "A freely moving electron in the graphene sheet can occupy as many quantum states as there are carbon atoms", says Florian Libisch, "more than ten million, in our case." This makes the calculations extremely demanding. An electron in a hydrogen atom can be described using just a few quantum states. The team at TU Wien (Vienna) developed a large scale computer simulation and calculated the behaviour of the electrons in graphene on the Vienna Scientific Cluster VSC, using hundreds of processor cores in parallel.
As it turns out, the edge of the graphene sheet plays a crucial role. "As the atoms are arranged in a hexagonal pattern, the edge can never be a completely straight line. On an atomic scale, the edge is always jagged", says Florian Libisch. In these regions, the electrons can occupy special edge states, which have an important influence on the electronic properties of the material. "Only with large scale computer simulations using the most powerful scientific computer clusters available today, we can find out how these edge states affect the electrical current", says Libisch. "The excellent agreement between the experimental results and our theoretical calculations shows that we have been very successful."
The discovery of graphene opened the door to a new research area: ultrathin materials which only consist of very few atomic layers are attracting a lot of attention. Especially the combination of graphene and other materials - such as boron nitride, as in this case - is expected to yield interesting results. "One thing is for sure: whoever wants to understand tomorrow's electronics has to know a lot about quantum physics", says Florian Libisch.
Original publication: "Size quantization of Dirac fermions in graphene constrictions", Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS11528
Dr. Florian Libisch
Institute for Theoretical Physics
Wiedner Hauptstraße 8-10, 1040 Wien
Florian Aigner | EurekAlert!
Watching atoms move in hybrid perovskite crystals reveals clues to improving solar cells
22.11.2017 | University of California - San Diego
Fine felted nanotubes: CAU research team develops new composite material made of carbon nanotubes
22.11.2017 | Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
High-precision measurement of the g-factor eleven times more precise than before / Results indicate a strong similarity between protons and antiprotons
The magnetic moment of an individual proton is inconceivably small, but can still be quantified. The basis for undertaking this measurement was laid over ten...
Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...
The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.
Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....
The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.
Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...
Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.
That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...
15.11.2017 | Event News
15.11.2017 | Event News
30.10.2017 | Event News
24.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.11.2017 | Health and Medicine
24.11.2017 | Earth Sciences