Scientists detect a quantum crystal of electrons and 'watch' it melt

December 20, 2016 by Jennifer Chu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT researchers believe they have finally captured the process of quantum melting — a phase transition in quantum mechanics, in which electrons that have formed a crystalline structure purely through their quantum interactions melt into a more disordered fluid, in response to quantum fluctuations to their density. Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT (Wigner crystal image courtesy of Arunas.rv/CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the first time, MIT physicists have observed a highly ordered crystal of electrons in a semiconducting material and documented its melting, much like ice thawing into water. The observations confirm a fundamental phase transition in quantum mechanics that was theoretically proposed more than 80 years ago but not experimentally documented until now.

The team, led by MIT professor of physics Raymond Ashoori and his postdoc Joonho Jang, used a spectroscopy technique developed in Ashoori's group. The method relies on electron "tunneling," a quantum mechanical process that allows researchers to inject electrons at precise energies into a system of interest—in this case, a system of electrons trapped in two dimensions. The method uses hundreds of thousands of short electrical pulses to probe a sheet of electrons in a cooled to extremely low temperatures, just above absolute zero.

With their tunneling technique, the researchers shot electrons into the supercooled material to measure the energy states of electrons within the semiconducting sheet. Against a background blur, they detected a sharp spike in the data. After much analysis, they determined that the spike was the precise signal that would be given off from a highly ordered crystal of electrons vibrating in unison.

As the group increased the density of electrons, essentially packing them into ever tighter quarters within the sheet, they found the data spike shot up to higher energies, then disappeared entirely, precisely at an at which an electronic crystal has been predicted to melt.

The researchers believe they have finally captured the process of quantum melting—a phase transition in , in which electrons that have formed a crystalline structure purely through their quantum interactions melt into a more disordered fluid, in response to quantum fluctuations to their density.

"We saw something radically new," Ashoori says. "There have been a lot of people looking for a long time to demonstrate an electronic crystal melting, and I think we've done it."

Ashoori and Jang published their results last week in the journal Nature Physics. Their co-authors are former MIT postdoc Benjamin Hunt, and Loren Pfeiffer and Kenneth West of Princeton University.

A crystallizing idea

The idea for a crystal of electrons was first proposed in 1934 by the Hungarian-American physicist Eugene Wigner. Normally, semiconducting metals such as silicon and aluminum are able to conduct electricity in the form of electrons that ping-pong around at lighning speeds, creating a current through the material.

However, at ultracold temperatures, electrons in these metals should grind almost to a halt, as there's very little heat left to spur their motions. Any movements electrons do exhibit, then, should be due to quantum interactions—the invisible forces between individual electrons and other quantum, subatomic particles.

Electrons, being negatively charged, naturally repel each other. Wigner proposed that for supercooled electrons at low densities, their mutual repulsive forces should act as a sort of scaffold, holding the electrons together yet apart at equally spaced intervals, thus creating a crystal of electrons. Such a rigid arrangement, which has since been coined a Wigner crystal, should turn a metal into an insulator rather than an electrical conductor.

Through a quantum tunnel

Since Wigner's proposal, others have tried to observe a Wigner crystal in the lab, with inconclusive results. For their part, Ashoori and Jang did not originally set out to find a Wigner crystal, but instead simply wanted to probe a two-dimensional sheet of electrons using their electron tunneling technique.

For the past decade, the group has developed and improved upon its technique, which involves shooting electrons through a barrier to probe the energy states of a material on the other side. Quantum mechanics dictates that there is a probability that any object in the universe could cross or "tunnel" through a seemingly impenetrable barrier and come out the other side unchanged.

This idea is key to the researchers' tunneling technique, in which they shoot electrons through a semiconducting barrier, to an underlying two-dimensional sheet of electrons. There, the tunneling electrons can cause vibrations in the surrounding electrons, the energies of which researchers can measure, given the known energies of the tunneling electrons.

A "serendipitous discovery"

In their experiments, the team probed a semiconducting sheet of gallium arsenide beneath a barrier of aluminum gallium arsenide. The researchers cooled the entire sample down to just a fraction above absolute zero and applied pulses of electrons at varying energies, then analyzed the resulting data.

When Jang noticed the very sharp spike in the data, he looked through previous theoretical literature to explain the feature and eventually came to the conclusion that the spike, given the temperature and electron density at which it formed, could only be a signature for a crystal of electrons vibrating in unison.

"Many of the theoretical predictions matched our observations, so that, we thought, was a smoking gun," Jang says. "We observed the ringing of an electron crystal."

The researchers went a step further to see what would happen if they altered the density of electrons in the two-dimensional sheet. As the density increased, the electron crystal's vibrational energies did as well, eventually peaking, then disappearing at the exact point at which theories have predicted a crystal should melt. The crystal of , the researchers surmised, must have become so dense that the entire structure crumbled into a more disordered, fluid state.

"No one's ever looked at this system with this kind of resolution," Ashoori says. "It was totally a serendipitous discovery."

The team is working to improve the resolution of its electron tunneling technique even further, in hopes of using it to discern the specific shapes of electron crystals.

"Different crystals have different modes of vibrations, and if we had better resolution, we could determine if there are certain peaks in the vibration curve that signify different modes, or shapes," Ashoori says. "There's reason to believe we can determine that with time."

Explore further: Physicists get ultra-sharp glimpse of electrons

More information: Joonho Jang et al. Sharp tunnelling resonance from the vibrations of an electronic Wigner crystal, Nature Physics (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nphys3979

Related Stories

Physicists get ultra-sharp glimpse of electrons

July 20, 2007

MIT physicists have developed a spectroscopy technique that allows researchers to inspect the world of electrons confined to a two-dimensional plane more clearly than ever before.

Recommended for you

Information engine operates with nearly perfect efficiency

January 19, 2018

Physicists have experimentally demonstrated an information engine—a device that converts information into work—with an efficiency that exceeds the conventional second law of thermodynamics. Instead, the engine's efficiency ...

Team takes a deep look at memristors

January 19, 2018

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. ...

Artificial agent designs quantum experiments

January 19, 2018

On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 20, 2016
Very good work.

I have written many Physorg posts about Art Winfree's theory of coupled oscillators. This is yet another example. "Any movements (these) electrons exhibit (at these low temperature conditions in this two dimensional sheet) are "due to quantum interactions." They form an equally spaced Wigner crystal. This is a system of synchronized quantum oscillations. Much like the precisely anti-synchronized pendulum in Huygens clocks, 350 years ago.

Then the tunneling electron hits this crystal, which vibrates in response as one fully interconnected synchronized entity--like a bell. The bell rings with a pure tone (the spike in the data) when so struck.

not rated yet Dec 20, 2016
All crystals act as an assembly of oscillators. Nothing new to that. Planck proposed it in the year 1900, and Bohr was able to derive an equation for the Rydberg wavelengths of consequent radiation that occurs during a transition. What IS new is the ability to measure it in some small way.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.