Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Dopants dramatically alter electronic structure of superconductor

Findings explain unusual properties, but complicate search for universal theory

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

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!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Absorbing acoustics with soundless spirals
10.02.2016 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht Hot Science of the Cold Universe
10.02.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The most accurate optical single-ion clock worldwide

Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock which attains an accuracy which had only been predicted theoretically so far. Their optical ytterbium clock achieved a relative systematic measurement uncertainty of 3 E-18. The results have been published in the current issue of the scientific journal "Physical Review Letters".

Atomic clock experts from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) are the first research group in the world to have built an optical single-ion clock...

Im Focus: Goodbye ground control: autonomous nanosatellites

The University of Würzburg has two new space projects in the pipeline which are concerned with the observation of planets and autonomous fault correction aboard satellites. The German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy funds the projects with around 1.6 million euros.

Detecting tornadoes that sweep across Mars. Discovering meteors that fall to Earth. Investigating strange lightning that flashes from Earth's atmosphere into...

Im Focus: Flow phenomena on solid surfaces: Physicists highlight key role played by boundary layer velocity

Physicists from Saarland University and the ESPCI in Paris have shown how liquids on solid surfaces can be made to slide over the surface a bit like a bobsleigh on ice. The key is to apply a coating at the boundary between the liquid and the surface that induces the liquid to slip. This results in an increase in the average flow velocity of the liquid and its throughput. This was demonstrated by studying the behaviour of droplets on surfaces with different coatings as they evolved into the equilibrium state. The results could prove useful in optimizing industrial processes, such as the extrusion of plastics.

The study has been published in the respected academic journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

Im Focus: New study: How stable is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Exceeding critical temperature limits in the Southern Ocean may cause the collapse of ice sheets and a sharp rise in sea levels

A future warming of the Southern Ocean caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere may severely disrupt the stability of the West...

Im Focus: Superconductivity: footballs with no resistance

Indications of light-induced lossless electricity transmission in fullerenes contribute to the search for superconducting materials for practical applications.

Superconductors have long been confined to niche applications, due to the fact that the highest temperature at which even the best of these materials becomes...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Travel grants available: Meet the world’s most proficient mathematicians and computer scientists

09.02.2016 | Event News

AKL’16: Experience Laser Technology Live in Europe´s Largest Laser Application Center!

02.02.2016 | Event News

From intelligent knee braces to anti-theft backpacks

26.01.2016 | Event News

Latest News

About injured hearts that grow back - Heart regeneration mechanism in zebrafish revealed

10.02.2016 | Life Sciences

The most accurate optical single-ion clock worldwide

10.02.2016 | Earth Sciences

Absorbing acoustics with soundless spirals

10.02.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>