Nav: Home

'Weak' materials offer strong possibilities for electronics

May 31, 2016

New fundamental research by UT Dallas physicists may accelerate the drive toward more advanced electronics and more powerful computers.

The scientists are investigating materials called topological insulators, whose surface electrical properties are essentially the opposite of the properties inside.

"These materials are made of the same thing throughout, from the interior to the exterior," said Dr. Fan Zhang, assistant professor of physics at UT Dallas. "But, the interior does not conduct electrons -- it's an insulator -- while the electrons on the surface are free to move around. The surface is therefore a conductor, like a metal, but it is in fact more robust than a metal."

There are two types of topological insulators: strong and weak. The difference between them is subtle and involves complex physics, but is critically important.

"If you had a cube of material that is a strong topological insulator, all six faces can conduct electrons," Zhang said. "For the weak one, only the four sides are conducting, while the top and bottom surfaces remain insulating."

Strong topological insulators were made experimentally shortly after they were theoretically proposed. Zhang said they are common in nature, and several dozen variations have been identified and experimentally confirmed.

On the other hand, weak topological insulators have been more elusive. Scientists have proposed various ways to construct a weak topological insulator, but because of its distinctive properties, researchers have not been able to say definitively that they have experimentally produced one.

Zhang, a theoretical physicist, has devised a new way to make a weak topological insulator, one that involves a relatively simple mix of two chemical elements: a crystal composed of bismuth combined with either iodine or bromine. He and his colleagues published the research recently in the journal Physical Review Letters and presented their work at the March meeting of the American Physical Society.

In the 1970s, German scientists grew bismuth iodides and bismuth bromides, but they didn't understand their potential as weak topological insulators, Zhang said.

"This class of materials we are proposing is a unique platform for exploring exotic physics with fairly simple chemistry," he said. "With further research and experimentation, our findings could lead to significant advances in technology, especially in electronics and quantum computing."

Electrically conductive materials are the fundamental building blocks of the traditional transistors that power electronic devices including cellphones and computers. Researchers are developing new theories and experiments with innovative physics and materials to create new transistor-like technologies that run devices and make computers more powerful.

With such exotic electrical properties, topological insulators offer a potential option, Zhang said.

"Our lives have been modified over time by our understanding of the conduction of electrons and the exploitation of this physics for use in electronic devices," he said. "We now need to revolutionize transistors. One possible substitution is a so-called topological field effect transistor, which could be made of a thin film of a weak topological insulator."

Computers also are heading for a fundamental redesign, and those efforts might be aided by Zhang's research.

"The fundamental computing scale is now very limited," he said. "For many applications, like weather forecasting and information encoding and decoding, today's computers are way too slow. However, quantum computers have been proposed that would use the principles of quantum physics to compute exponentially faster than today's computers.

"Weak topological insulators could make quantum computing feasible."

As a theorist, Zhang used old-fashioned pencil and paper to construct the basis of his theory about the bismuth compounds. His postdoctoral researcher Dr. Cheng-Cheng Liu, the study's lead author and now an assistant professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, then crunched specific numbers using high-speed supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center based at UT Austin.

Zhang's UT Dallas colleague, Dr. Bing Lv, assistant professor of physics, has made samples of bismuth iodide.

"The next step will be to characterize the material to explore the unique properties that a weak topological insulator can offer to fundamental physics and to our everyday lives," Zhang said.
-end-
In addition to Zhang and Liu, other authors of the study are Dr. Jin-Jian Zhou at California Institute of Technology and Yugui Yao at Beijing Institute of Technology.

The work at UT Dallas was primarily supported by University startup funds and the National Science Foundation through the Aspen Center for Physics and Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.

University of Texas at Dallas

Related Electrons Articles:

Cooling nanotube resonators with electrons
In a study in Nature Physics, ICFO researchers report on a technique that uses electron transport to cool a nanomechanical resonator near the quantum regime.
New method for detecting quantum states of electrons
Researchers in the Quantum Dynamics Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) devised a new method -- called image charge detection -- to detect electrons' transitions to quantum states.
Slow electrons to combat cancer
Slow electons can be used to destroy cancer cells - but how exactly this happens has not been well understood.
How light steers electrons in metals
Researchers in the Department of Physics of ETH Zurich have measured how electrons in so-called transition metals get redistributed within a fraction of an optical oscillation cycle.
Twisting whirlpools of electrons
Using a novel approach, EPFL physicists have been able to create ultrafast electron vortex beams, with significant implications for fundamental physics, quantum computing, future data-storage and even certain medical treatments.
Inner electrons behave differently in aromatic hydrocarbons
In an international research collaboration between Tsinghua University in Beijing and Sorbonne University in Paris, scientists found that four hydrocarbon molecules, known for their internal ring structure, have a lower threshold for the release of excess energy than molecules without a similar ring structure, because one of their electrons decays from a higher to a lower energy level, a phenomenon called the Auger effect.
Exotic spiraling electrons discovered by physicists
Rutgers and other physicists have discovered an exotic form of electrons that spin like planets and could lead to advances in lighting, solar cells, lasers and electronic displays.
Racing electrons under control
The advantage is that electromagnetic light waves oscillate at petaherz frequency.
Electrons go with the flow
You turn on a switch and the light switches on because electricity 'flows'.
Tying down electrons with nanoribbons
Nanoribbons are promising topological materials displaying novel electronic properties. UC Berkeley chemists and physicists have found a way to join two different types of nanoribbon to create a topological insulator that confines single electrons to the junction between them.
More Electrons News and Electrons Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.