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Rare semiconductors reveal unusual electronic state

Posted: 10 Dec 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Brookhaven National Laboratory  cuprates  titanium-oxypnictide  nematicity 

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, Columbia Engineering, Columbia Physics and Kyoto University have revealed what they describe as an unusual form of electronic order in a novel family of unconventional superconductors. According to them, the discovery creates an unexpected connection between this group of titanium-oxypnictide superconductors and the more familiar cuprates and iron-pnictides, providing scientists to shed light into the mysteries of high-temperature superconductivity.

"Finding this new material is a bit like an archaeologist finding a new Egyptian pharaoh's tomb," said Simon Billinge, a physicist at Brookhaven Lab and Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, who led the research team. "As we try and solve the mysteries behind unconventional superconductivity, we need to discover different but related systems to give us a more complete picture of what is going on-just as a new tomb will turn up treasures not found before, giving a more complete picture of ancient Egyptian society."

Harnessing the power of superconductivity, or the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity with zero energy loss, is one of the most exciting possibilities for creating a more energy-efficient future. But because most superconductors only work at very low temperatures, just a few degrees above absolute zero, or -273°C, they are not yet useful for everyday life. The discovery in the 1980s of "high-temperature" superconductors that work at warmer temperatures (though still not room temperature) was a giant step forward, offering scientists the hope that a complete understanding of what enables these materials to carry loss-free current would help them design new materials for everyday applications. Each discovery of a common theme among these materials is helping scientists unlock pieces of the puzzle.

One of the greatest mysteries is seeking to understand how the electrons in high-temperature superconductors interact, sometimes trying to avoid each other and at other times pairing up-the crucial characteristic enabling them to carry current with no resistance. Scientists studying these materials at Brookhaven and elsewhere have discovered special types of electronic states such as "charge density waves," where charges huddle to form stripes, and checkerboard patterns of charge. Both of these break the "translational symmetry" of the material-the repetition of sameness as you move across the surface (e.g., moving across a checkerboard you move from white squares to black squares).

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