Over the last quarter century, scientists have discovered a handful of materials that can be converted from magnetic insulators or metals into "superconductors" able to carry electrical current with no energy loss-an enormously promising idea for new types of zero-resistance electronics and energy-storage and transmission systems.
At present, a key step to achieving superconductivity (in addition to keeping the materials very cold) is to substitute a different kind of atom into some positions of the "parent" material's crystal framework. Until now, scientists thought this process, called doping, simply added more electrons or other charge carriers, thereby rendering the electronic environment more conducive to the formation of electron pairs that could move with no energy loss if the material is held at a certain chilly temperature.
Now, new studies of an iron-based superconductor by an international team of scientists - including physicists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cornell University - suggest that the story is somewhat more complicated. Their research, published online in Nature Physics February 17, 2013,* demonstrates that doping, in addition to adding electrons, dramatically alters the atomic-scale electronic structure of the parent material, with important consequences for the behavior of the current-carrying electrons.
"The key observation - that dopant atoms introduce elongated impurity states which scatter electrons in the material in an asymmetric way - helps explain most of the unusual properties," said J.C. Séamus Davis, the study's lead author, who directs the Center for Emergent Superconductivity at Brookhaven Lab and is also the J.G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell University. "Our findings provide a new starting point for theorists trying to grapple with how these materials work, and could potentially point to new ways to design superconductors with improved properties," he said.
The researchers used a technique developed by Davis called spectroscopic imaging scanning tunneling microscopy to visualize the electronic properties around individual dopant atoms in the parent material, and to simultaneously monitor how electrons scatter around these dopants (in this case, cobalt).
Earlier studies had shown that certain electronic properties of the non-superconducting "parent" material had a strong directional dependence - for example, electrons were able to move more easily in one direction through the crystal than in the perpendicular direction. However, in those studies, the signal of a strong directional dependence only appeared when the scientists put the dopants into the material, and got stronger the more dopants they added.
Before this, the assumption was that dopants simply added electrons, and that the material's properties - including the emergence of superconductivity - were due to some intrinsic characteristic (for example, the alternating alignments of electron spins on adjacent atoms) that resulted in a directional dependence.
"But the emergence of directional dependence of electronic properties as more dopants are added suggests that the strong directionality is a result of the dopants, not an intrinsic property of the material," Davis said. "We decided to test this idea by directly imaging what each dopant atom does to the nearby atomic-level electronic structure in these materials."
According to Davis, the current paper reports two very clear results:
1) At each cobalt dopant atom, there is an elongated impurity state-a quantum mechanical state bound to the cobalt atom-that aligns in a particular direction (the same for each cobalt atom) relative to the overall crystal. 2) These oblong, aligned impurity states scatter the current-carrying electrons away from the impurity state in an asymmetric way - similar to the way ripples of water would propagate asymmetrically outward from an elongated stick thrown into a pond, rather than forming the circular pattern produced by a pebble.
"These direct observational findings explain most of the outstanding mysteries about how the electrical current moves through these materials - for example, with greater ease perpendicular to the direction you would expect based solely on the characteristics of the parent material," Davis said. "The results show that the dopants actually do dramatic things to the electronic structure of the parent material."
"It's possible that what we've found could be similar to an effect dopants had on early semiconductors," Davis said. "Early versions of these materials, though useful, had nowhere near the performance as those developed after the 1970s, when scientists at Bell Labs figured out a way to move the dopant atoms far away from the electrons so they wouldn't mess up the electronic structure." That advance made possible all the microelectronics we now use every day, including cell phones, he said.
"If we find out the dopant atoms are doing something we don't want in the iron and even copper superconductors, maybe we can find a way to move them away from the active electrons to make more useful materials."
Brookhaven's role in this research was supported by the Center for Emergent Superconductivity, a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center headquartered at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Additional funding was provided by the DOE Office of Science (Ames Laboratory), the National Science Foundation, the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Scottish Funding Council, and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.
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, please visit http://science.energy.gov/.
One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York on behalf of Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization. Visit Brookhaven Lab's electronic newsroom for links, news archives, graphics, and more or follow Brookhaven Lab on Twitter.
Karen McNulty Walsh | EurekAlert!
Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions
27.04.2017 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory
SwRI-led team discovers lull in Mars' giant impact history
26.04.2017 | Southwest Research Institute
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
28.04.2017 | Event News
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering
28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences
28.04.2017 | Life Sciences