(Phys.org)—As an elementary particle, the electron cannot be broken down into smaller particles, at least as far as is currently known. However, in a phenomenon called electron fractionalization, in certain materials an electron can be broken down into smaller "charge pulses," each of which carries a fraction of the electron's charge. Although electron fractionalization has many interesting implications, its origins are not well understood.
Now in a new paper published in Nature Communications, a team of physicists led by Gwendal Fève at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and the Laboratory for Photonics and Nanostructures in Marcoussis have applied an experiment typically used to study photons to investigate the underlying mechanisms of electron fractionalization. The method allows the researchers to observe single-electron fractionalization on the picosecond scale.
"We have been able to visualize the splitting of an electronic wavepacket into two fractionalized packets carrying half of the original electron charge," Fève told Phys.org. "Electron fractionalization has been studied in previous works, mainly during roughly the last five years. Our work is the first to combine single-electron resolution—which allows us to address the fractionalization process at the elementary scale—with time resolution to directly visualize the fractionalization process."
The technique that the researchers used is called the Hong-Ou-Mandel experiment, which can be used to measure the degree of resemblance between two photons, or in this case electron charge pulses, in an interferometer. This experiment also requires a single-electron emitter, which some of the same researchers, along with many others, have recently been developing.
The researchers first analyzed the propagation of a single electron in the interferometer's outer one-dimensional wire, and then when that electron fractionalized, they could observe the interaction between its two charge pulses in the inner one-dimensional wire. As the researchers explain, when the original electron travels along the outer wire, Coulomb interactions (interactions between charged particles) between excitations in the outer and inner wires produce two types of excitation pairs: two pulses of the same sign (carrying a net charge) and two pulses of opposite signs (which together are neutral). The two different excitation pairs travel at different velocities, again due to Coulomb interactions, which causes the original electron to split into two distinct charge pulses.
The experiment reveals that, when a single electron fractionalizes into two pulses, the final state cannot be described as a single-particle state, but rather as a collective state composed of several excitations. For this reason, the fractionalization process destroys the original electron particle. Electron destruction can be measured by the decoherence of the electron's wave packet.
Gaining a better understanding of electron fractionalization could have a variety of implications for research in condensed matter physics, such as controlling single-electron currents in one-dimensional wires.
"There has been, during the past years, strong efforts to control and manipulate the propagation of electrons in electronic conductors," Fève said. "It bears many analogies with the manipulations of the quantum states of photons performed in optics. For such control, one-dimensional conductors are useful, as they offer the possibility to guide the electrons along a one-dimensional trajectory. However, Coulomb interactions between electrons are also very strong in one-dimensional wires, so strong that electrons are destroyed: they fractionalize. Understanding fractionalization is understanding the destruction mechanism of an elementary electron in a one-dimensional wire. Such understanding is very important if one wants to control electronic currents at the elementary scale of a single electron."
In the future, the researchers plan to perform further experiments with the Hong-Ou-Mandel interferometer in order to better understand why fractionalization leads to electron destruction, and possibly how to suppress fractionalization.
"The Hong-Ou-Mandel interferometer can be used to picture the temporal extension (or shape) of the electronic wavepackets, which is what we used to visualize the fractionalization process," Fève said. "It can also be used to capture the phase relationship (or phase coherence) between two components of the electronic wavepacket.
"This combined information fully defines the single-electron state, offering the possibility to visualize the wavefunction of single electrons propagating in a one-dimensional conductor. This would first provide a complete understanding of the fractionalization mechanism and in particular how it leads to the decoherence of single-electron states. It would also offer the possibility to test if single electrons can be protected from this decoherence induced by Coulomb interaction. Can we suppress (or reduce) the fractionalization process by reducing the strength of the Coulomb interaction? We would then be able to engineer and visualize pure single-electron states, preserved from Coulomb interaction.
"The next natural step is then to address few-particle states and electron entanglement in quantum conductors. Again, the question of the destruction of such states by Coulomb interaction effects will be a crucial one."
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V. Freulon, et al. "Hong-Ou-Mandel experiment for temporal investigation of single-electron fractionalization." Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms7854