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Evidence for a chiral superconductor could bring quantum computing closer to the mainstream

Evidence for a chiral superconductor could bring quantum computing closer to the mainstream
Experimental QPI results. a-e) QPI data and processing procedures. a STM image (Vs = 0.1 V, It = 0.1 nA) of a (3–√×3–√)-Sn surface (p = 0.1) with several surface defects appearing as dark spots. b) Corresponding dI/dV image at T = 0.5 K. The bright star-like features are centered at the defect locations in panel a. c) The power spectrum of panel b, symmetrized and rotated in panel d. The central region is subsequently suppressed to enhance the high frequency features, as shown in panel e. f-h show 4, 3, and 2 sets of QPI results obtained from (3–√×3–√)-Sn surfaces for p=0.1, 0.08, and 0.06, respectively. Each column shows QPI images obtained in a fixed spatial region but with different biases, as indicated on the left. The measurement temperatures are labeled above each column, and data are shown for temperatures above and below Tc. The central flower leafs only appear when the sample is in superconducting state and when the measurement bias is within the superconducting gap (within ± 1.5 mV, ± 2.2 mV, and ± 3.6 mV, in f, g, and h, respectively). These QPI images are enclosed by the dashed red rectangles. Panel f shows QPI results obtained at T=5 K (slightly larger than Tc=4.7 K for this sample), or at 0.5 K in an 8 T B-field (H2c=3 T). These data have a significantly reduced flower leaf feature, which could come from superconducting fluctuations. In panel g, the “0.5 K (c)∗” data are QPI results obtained from a sample with interstitial Sn adatoms, deposited at 120 K. The presence of interstitial Sn considerably enhances the flower-leaf features at the center of the Brillouin zone. Credit: Nature Physics (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41567-022-01889-1

The University of Tennessee's physicists have led a scientific team that found silicon—a mainstay of the soon-to-be trillion-dollar electronics industry—can host a novel form of superconductivity that could bring rapidly emerging quantum technologies closer to industrial scale production.

The findings are reported in Nature Physics and involve electron theft, time reversal, and a little electronic ambidexterity.

Couples on the superconducting dance floor

Superconductors conduct electric current without resistance or energy dissipation. Their uses range from powerful electromagnets for and medical MRI devices to ultrasensitive magnetic sensors to quantum computers. Superconductivity is a spectacular display of quantum mechanics in action on a macroscopic scale. It all comes down to the electrons.

Electrons are negatively charged and repel each other in a vacuum. However, in a solid-state medium—the realm of metals and semiconductors—there are roughly 1023 other electrons and positive ions that complicate the picture enormously. In a superconductor, conduction electrons overcome their mutual repulsion and become attracted to each other through interactions with the other particles. This interaction causes them to pair up like dancers at a ball, forming composite particles, or "Cooper pairs" (so named for Nobel laureate Leon Cooper).

Typically, the "glue" causing this pairing comes from the atom vibrations in a metal, but only if the electrons don't repel each other too strongly. The process is somewhat like two people (the electrons) on a soft mattress (the medium) that roll toward one another when the mattress is compressed in the center. The laws of quantum mechanics dictate that Cooper pairs (unlike single electrons) can all condense into a single coherent quantum state, where they move in lockstep. The condensate exhibits a rigidity as a result, allowing current to flow without interruption or dissipation; in other words: to superconduct. This mechanism leads to conventional (s-wave) superconductors such as aluminum, tin, or lead.

When the repulsion between electrons is strong, however, they pair up in higher angular momentum states so that they can't get too close, resulting in, for example, a d-wave superconductor. This is the case with materials made from copper and oxygen (cuprates) and it plays a starring role in the Nature Physics research and its future potential.

Stealing electrons

In this work, Professor Hanno Weitering and Associate Professor Steve Johnston and their colleagues in the U.S., Spain, and China replicated cuprate-like physics by growing one-third of a monolayer of tin atoms on a substrate (base layer) of silicon. Think of it as nine silicon atoms in a single layer, with three tin atoms—placed farther apart—stacked in another layer on top. The system is engineered such that the repulsion between the tin electrons is so strong that they can't move and won't superconduct.

Weitering, Johnston, and their colleagues found a clever workaround by implanting boron atoms in the silicon layer's diamond-like crystal structure. The boron atoms proceeded to steal electrons from the tin layer (typically about 10 percent) in a process similar to techniques perfected by the semiconductor industry. This gave the remaining tin electrons the freedom to move about. The tin layer thus became metallic and even superconducting at a critical temperature exceeding that of nearly all elemental superconductors. Importantly, the phenomenon also scaled with the number of or stolen electrons, behavior reminiscent of the cuprate superconductors.

Reversing time and quantum computing applications

While electron theft-based superconductivity is interesting in its own right, the research team found even more intriguing physics suggesting this tin-silicon material hosts chiral superconductivity. This highly exotic state of matter is heavily pursued, in part because of its potential for quantum computing.

In chiral systems, clockwise and counterclockwise rotations are the same and yet different—like how left and right hands are mirror images of each other that can't be superimposed. In quantum mechanics, the properties of single or paired electrons are encoded in a mathematical wavefunction that can be left-handed, right-handed, or "topologically trivial."

The superconducting wavefunction in the tin layer turns out to be clockwise in parts of the sample and counterclockwise in other parts. If one were to rewind the clock, the clockwise wavefunction would become counterclockwise and vice-versa, but these two wavefunctions are still different, just like the left hand and right hand are different; as a physicist would say, is broken.

Time-reversal symmetry breaking is a hallmark of chiral superconductivity. Another is that the system has two one-dimensional conduction channels that run like railroad tracks along the perimeter of the sample material. These channels host exotic particle-like entities where under certain conditions the particle and its antiparticle become indistinguishable. Majorana particles are topologically protected, impervious to what's going on in the environment around them. They've been envisioned as building blocks of future quantum computers, a rapidly emerging technology that could help solve problems too complex for classical computers. The use of Majorana particles implies a safeguard against decoherence, a critical requirement for quantum computation to succeed.

Taken together, the Nature Physics results suggest the possibility of integrating exotic properties with an easily scalable silicon-based materials platform. As such, this would bring futuristic closer to industrial scale production.

More information: F. Ming et al, Evidence for chiral superconductivity on a silicon surface, Nature Physics (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41567-022-01889-1.

Journal information: Nature Physics

Citation: Evidence for a chiral superconductor could bring quantum computing closer to the mainstream (2023, February 9) retrieved 25 March 2023 from
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