Physicists report progress in understanding high-temperature superconductors

July 29, 2011

Although high-temperature superconductors are widely used in technologies such as MRI machines, explaining the unusual properties of these materials remains an unsolved problem for theoretical physicists. Major progress in this important field has now been reported by physicists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a pair of papers published back-to-back in the July 29 issue of Physical Review Letters.

The first paper, by UCSC physicist Sriram Shastry, presents a new theory of "Extremely Correlated Fermi Liquids." The second paper compares calculations based on this theory to experimental data from studies of high-temperature superconductors using a technique called angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES). The lead author of this second paper is Gey-Hong Gweon, assistant professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, with coauthors Shastry and Genda Gu of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

"I showed my preliminary calculations to Gweon, who is an expert in this field, and he was very excited," said Shastry, a distinguished professor of physics at UCSC. "He obtained data from lots of experimental groups, including his own, and we found a remarkably successful agreement between theory and experiment at a level that has never been achieved before in this field."

Shastry's theory provides a new technique to calculate from first principles the mathematical functions related to the behavior of electrons in a high-temperature superconductor. Interactions between electrons, which behave as almost free particles in normal metals, are a key factor in superconductivity, and these electron-electron interactions or correlations are directly encoded in photoemission spectra.

Photoemission spectroscopy is based on the , in which a material emits electrons as a result of energy absorbed from light shining on the surface of the material. ARPES studies, which produce a spectrum or "line shape" providing clues to the of the material, have yielded anomalous results for high-temperature superconductors.

"The unusual 'fatness' of the line shapes observed in electron spectroscopy has been at the center of the mystery of high-temperature superconductors," Gweon said. "The anomalously broad and asymmetric line shape has been taken as a key signature of strong electron-electron interaction."

Shastry's theory of extremely correlated Fermi liquids is an alternative to the Landau Fermi liquid theory, which is a highly successful model for the weakly interacting electrons in a normal metal but not for very strongly correlated systems. The success of Shastry's calculations indicates that the anomalous photoemission spectra of high-temperature superconductors are driven by extreme correlations of electrons. Shastry coined the term "extreme correlation" to describe systems in which certain "energy expensive" configurations of electrons are prohibited. This arises mathematically from sending one of the variables, known as the Hubbard "U" energy, to infinity.

"That leaves you with a problem that is very hard to solve," Shastry said. "I have been studying these problems since 1984, and now I have found a scheme that gives us a road through the impasse. The spectacular correspondence with the experimental data tells us that we are on the right track."

The experimental data come from ARPES studies using two different sources of light: high-energy light from synchrotron sources and lower-energy laser sources. In studies of high-temperature superconductors, these two light sources yield significantly different photoemission spectra for the same samples, and researchers have been unable to resolve this inconsistency. But Gweon and Shastry found that these apparently irreconcilable results can be accounted for by the same theoretical functions, with a simple change in one parameter.

"We can fit both laser and synchrotron data with absolute precision, which suggests that the two techniques are consistent with each other," Shastry said. "They are telling two different slices of the same physical result."

Shastry said he plans to use the new technique to calculate other experimentally observed phenomena. "There is still a lot of work to be done," he said. "We have to look at a variety of other things, and extend the new scheme to do other calculations. But we have made a breach through the impasse, and that's why we are excited."

Explore further: Vibrations in Crystal Lattice Play Big Role in High Temperature Superconductors

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1 / 5 (1) Jul 31, 2011
Extreme correlation of electrons may simply be another way of saying synchronized electrons. In several other posts on Phys Org I have proposed that high temp superconductivity results from mass antisynchrony among one or more limit cycle oscillations of electrons.

The idea behind this theory arises from work done by Arthur Winfree forty five years ago, in which he showed that limit cycle oscillators have a tendency to synchronize their oscillations in one or more exact patterns. Examples include the four legs of a horse, which synchronize in various specific gaits. Winfree's theory, which he applied to biological systems, may well apply to physics. Winfree used the phrase limit cycle oscillations, which includes any periodic behavior.

Cooper pairs are electrons that have an exactly antisynchronous relationship. The article suggests that extreme correlation may arise when certain configurations become too energy expensive. Winfree had the same notion.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 31, 2011
I'm not sure if I fully understand the implications of sending the Hubbard U energy to infinity, but I think it must imply, and require, full synchrony among the electrons. Infinity for the Hubbard U energy implies an all to all linkage. When electrons are fully interconnected, all major oscillations probably synchronize--necessarily--in one of several patterns or configurations that Art Winfree specified in his 1960s era work. One such configuration is exactly antisynchronous, which is the essence of Cooper pairs. Winfree's field was mathematical biology, not physics, but there is reason to believe that his work would apply to physics as well, particularly when the subject in question involves limit cycle oscillations.

A good primer on Winfree's theory may be found at Scientific American, December 1993, in an article by Strogatz and Stewart. The article specifically mentions phase transitions.

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