Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have discovered a previously unknown phase in a class of superconductors called iron arsenides. This sheds light on a debate over the interactions between atoms and electrons that are responsible for their unusual superconductivity.
“This new magnetic phase, which has never been observed before, could have significant implications for our understanding of unconventional superconductivity,” said Ray Osborn, an Argonne physicist and coauthor on the paper.
A neutron diffraction image giving evidence for the new magnetic phase in iron-based superconductors discovered by Argonne scientists. It shows the scattering results from a sample of barium iron arsenide with sodium ions added to 24% of the barium sites. Nematic order sets in below 90 K (about -300°F), but four-fold symmetry is restored below 40 K (-387°F). The resulting atomic and magnetic structures are illustrated in the figure on the right, in which the blue spheres represent iron atoms and the red arrows show the direction of their magnetic moments. Credit: Image by Jared Allred / Argonne National Laboratory
Scientists and engineers are fascinated with superconductors because they are capable of carrying electric current without any resistance. This is unique among all conductors: even good ones, like the copper wires used in most power cords, lose energy along the way. Why don’t we use superconductors for every power line in the country, then? Their biggest drawback is that they must be cooled to very, very cold temperatures to work. Also, we do not fully understand how the newest types, called unconventional superconductors, work. Researchers hope that by figuring out the theory behind these superconductors, we could raise the temperature at which they work and harness their power for a wide range of new technologies.
The theory behind older, “conventional” superconductors is fairly well understood. Pairs of electrons, which normally repel each other, instead bind together by distorting the atoms around them and help each other travel through the metal. (In a plain old conductor, these electrons bounce off the atoms, producing heat). In “unconventional” superconductors, the electrons still form pairs, but we don’t know what binds them together.
Superconductors are notably finicky; in order to get to the superconducting phase—where electricity flows freely—they need a lot of coddling. The iron arsenides the researchers studied are normally magnetic, but as you add sodium to the mix, the magnetism is suppressed and the materials eventually become superconducting below roughly -400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Magnetic order also affects the atomic structure. At room temperature, the iron atoms sit on a square lattice, which has four-fold symmetry, but when cooled below the magnetic transition temperature, they distort to form a rectangular lattice, with only two-fold symmetry. This is sometimes called “nematic order.” It was thought that this nematic order persists until the material becomes superconducting—until this result.
The Argonne team discovered a phase where the material returns to four-fold symmetry, rather than two-fold, close to the onset of superconductivity. (See diagram).
“It is visible using neutron powder diffraction, which is exquisitely sensitive, but which you can only perform at this resolution in a very few places in the world,” Osborn said. Neutron powder diffraction reveals both the locations of the atoms and the directions of their microscopic magnetic moments.
The reason why the discovery of the new phase is interesting is that it may help to resolve a long-standing debate about the origin of nematic order. Theorists have been arguing whether it is caused by magnetism or by orbital ordering.
The orbital explanation posits that electrons like to sit in particular d orbitals, driving the lattice into the nematic phase. Magnetic models, on the other hand (developed by study co-authors Ilya Eremin and Andrey Chubukov at the Institut für Theoretische Physik in Germany and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively) suggest that magnetic interactions are what drive the two-fold symmetry—and that they are the key to the superconductivity itself. Perhaps what binds the pairs of electrons together in iron arsenide superconductors is magnetism.
“Orbital theories do not predict a return to four-fold symmetry at this point,” Osborn said, “but magnetic models do.”
“So far, this effect has only been observed experimentally in these sodium-doped compounds,” he said, “but we believe it provides evidence for a magnetic explanation of nematic order in the iron arsenides in general.”
It could also affect our understanding of superconductivity in other types of superconductors, such as the copper oxides, where nematic distortions have also been seen, Osborn said.
The paper, titled “Magnetically driven suppression of nematic order in an iron-based superconductor,” was published today in Nature Communications.
Other coauthors on the paper were Argonne scientists Sevda Avci (now at Afyon Kocatepe University in Turkey), Omar Chmaissem (a joint appointment with Northern Illinois University), Jared M. Allred, Stephan Rosenkranz, Daniel Bugaris, Duck Young Chung, John-Paul Castellan, John Schlueter, Helmut Claus and Mercouri Kanatzidis (a joint appointment with Northwestern University); and Dmitry Khalyavin, Pascal Manuel and Aziz Daoud-Aladine at the ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, U.K.
Funding for the research was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The neutron powder diffraction was performed at ISIS.
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.
DOE’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 science.energy.gov
Jared Sagoff | Eurek Alert!
Researchers pave the way for ionotronic nanodevices
23.02.2017 | Aalto University
Microhotplates for a smart gas sensor
22.02.2017 | Toyohashi University of Technology
In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport
Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...
The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.
The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...
Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...
Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".
Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...
13.02.2017 | Event News
10.02.2017 | Event News
09.02.2017 | Event News
24.02.2017 | Earth Sciences
24.02.2017 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
24.02.2017 | Life Sciences