Tag Archives: electrons

Physicists solve quantum tunneling mystery

An international team of scientists studying ultrafast physics have solved a mystery of quantum mechanics, and found that quantum tunneling is an instantaneous process.

The new theory could lead to faster and smaller electronic components, for which quantum tunneling is a significant factor. It will also lead to a better understanding of diverse areas such as electron microscopy, nuclear fusion and DNA mutations.

“Timescales this short have never been explored before. It’s an entirely new world,” said one of the international team, Professor Anatoli Kheifets, from The Australian National University (ANU).

“We have modelled the most delicate processes of nature very accurately.”

At very small scales quantum physics shows that particles such as electrons have wave-like properties – their exact position is not well defined. This means they can occasionally sneak through apparently impenetrable barriers, a phenomenon called quantum tunneling.

Quantum tunneling plays a role in a number of phenomena, such as nuclear fusion in the sun, scanning tunneling microscopy, and flash memory for computers. However, the leakage of particles also limits the miniaturisation of electronic components.

Professor Kheifets and Dr. Igor Ivanov, from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering, are members of a team which studied ultrafast experiments at the attosecond scale (10-18 seconds), a field that has developed in the last 15 years.

Until their work, a number of attosecond phenomena could not be adequately explained, such as the time delay when a photon ionised an atom.

“At that timescale the time an electron takes to quantum tunnel out of an atom was thought to be significant. But the mathematics says the time during tunneling is imaginary – a complex number – which we realised meant it must be an instantaneous process,” said Professor Kheifets.

“A very interesting paradox arises, because electron velocity during tunneling may become greater than the speed of light. However, this does not contradict the special theory of relativity, as the tunneling velocity is also imaginary” said Dr Ivanov, who recently took up a position at the Center for Relativistic Laser Science in Korea.

The team’s calculations, which were made using the Raijin supercomputer, revealed that the delay in photoionisation originates not from quantum tunneling but from the electric field of the nucleus attracting the escaping electron.

The results give an accurate calibration for future attosecond-scale research, said Professor Kheifets.

“It’s a good reference point for future experiments, such as studying proteins unfolding, or speeding up electrons in microchips,” he said.

The research is published in Nature Physics.

Source: ANU

Shown here is "event zero," the first detection of a trapped electron in the MIT physicists' instrument. The color indicates the electron's detected power as a function of frequency and time. The sudden “jumps” in frequency indicate an electron collision with the residual hydrogen gas in the cell.

Courtesy of the researchers

Source: MIT News

New tabletop detector “sees” single electrons

Magnet-based setup may help detect the elusive mass of neutrinos.

Jennifer Chu


MIT physicists have developed a new tabletop particle detector that is able to identify single electrons in a radioactive gas.
As the gas decays and gives off electrons, the detector uses a magnet to trap them in a magnetic bottle. A radio antenna then picks up very weak signals emitted by the electrons, which can be used to map the electrons’ precise activity over several milliseconds.

Shown here is "event zero," the first detection of a trapped electron in the MIT physicists' instrument. The color indicates the electron's detected power as a function of frequency and time. The sudden “jumps” in frequency indicate an electron collision with the residual hydrogen gas in the cell. Courtesy of the researchers Source: MIT News
Shown here is “event zero,” the first detection of a trapped electron in the MIT physicists’ instrument. The color indicates the electron’s detected power as a function of frequency and time. The sudden “jumps” in frequency indicate an electron collision with the residual hydrogen gas in the cell.
Courtesy of the researchers
Source: MIT News

The team worked with researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of Washington, the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), and elsewhere to record the activity of more than 100,000 individual electrons in krypton gas.
The majority of electrons observed behaved in a characteristic pattern: As the radioactive krypton gas decays, it emits electrons that vibrate at a baseline frequency before petering out; this frequency spikes again whenever an electron hits an atom of radioactive gas. As an electron ping-pongs against multiple atoms in the detector, its energy appears to jump in a step-like pattern.
“We can literally image the frequency of the electron, and we see this electron suddenly pop into our radio antenna,” says Joe Formaggio, an associate professor of physics at MIT. “Over time, the frequency changes, and actually chirps up. So these electrons are chirping in radio waves.”
Formaggio says the group’s results, published in Physical Review Letters, are a big step toward a more elusive goal: measuring the mass of a neutrino.

A ghostly particle
Neutrinos are among the more mysterious elementary particles in the universe: Billions of them pass through every cell of our bodies each second, and yet these ghostly particles are incredibly difficult to detect, as they don’t appear to interact with ordinary matter. Scientists have set theoretical limits on neutrino mass, but researchers have yet to precisely detect it.
“We have [the mass] cornered, but haven’t measured it yet,” Formaggio says. “The name of the game is to measure the energy of an electron — that’s your signature that tells you about the neutrino.”
As Formaggio explains it, when a radioactive atom such as tritium decays, it turns into an isotope of helium and, in the process, also releases an electron and a neutrino. The energy of all particles released adds up to the original energy of the parent neutron. Measuring the energy of the electron, therefore, can illuminate the energy — and consequently, the mass — of the neutrino.
Scientists agree that tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is key to obtaining a precise measurement: As a gas, tritium decays at such a rate that scientists can relatively easily observe its electron byproducts.
Researchers in Karlsruhe, Germany, hope to measure electrons in tritium using a massive spectrometer as part of an experiment named KATRIN (Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment). Electrons, produced from the decay of tritium, pass through the spectrometer, which filters them according to their different energy levels. The experiment, which is just getting under way, may obtain measurements of single electrons, but at a cost.
“In KATRIN, the electrons are detected in a silicon detector, which means the electrons smash into the crystal, and a lot of random things happen, essentially destroying the electrons,” says Daniel Furse, a graduate student in physics, and a co-author on the paper. “We still want to measure the energy of electrons, but we do it in a nondestructive way.”
The group’s setup has an additional advantage: size. The detector essentially fits on a tabletop, and the space in which electrons are detected is smaller than a postage stamp. In contrast, KATRIN’s spectrometer, when delivered to Karlsruhe, barely fit through the city’s streets.
Tuning in
Furse and Formaggio’s detector — an experiment called “Project 8” — is based on a decades-old phenomenon known as cyclotron radiation, in which charged particles such as electrons emit radio waves in a magnetic field. It turns out electrons emit this radiation at a frequency similar to that of military radio communications.
“It’s the same frequency that the military uses — 26 gigahertz,” Formaggio says. “And it turns out the baseline frequency changes very slightly if the electron has energy. So we said, ‘Why not look at the radiation [electrons] emit directly?’”
Formaggio and former postdoc Benjamin Monreal, now an assistant professor of physics at UCSB, reasoned that if they could tune into this baseline frequency, they could catch electrons as they shot out of a decaying radioactive gas, and measure their energy in a magnetic field.
“If you could measure the frequency of this radio signal, you could measure the energy potentially much more accurately than you can with any other method,” Furse says. “The problem is, you’re looking at this really weak signal over a very short amount of time, and it’s tough to see, which is why no one has ever done it before.”
It took five years of fits and starts before the group was finally able to build an accurate detector. Once the researchers turned the detector on, they were able to record individual electrons within the first 100 milliseconds of the experiment — although the analysis took a bit longer.
“Our software was so slow at processing things that we could tell funny things were happening because, all of a sudden, our file size became larger, as these things started appearing,” Formaggio recalls.
He says the precision of the measurements obtained so far in krypton gas has encouraged the team to move on to tritium — a goal Formaggio says may be attainable in the next year or two — and pave a path toward measuring the mass of the neutrino.
Steven Elliott, a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, says the group’s new detector “represents a very significant result.” In order to use the detector to measure the mass of a neutrino, Elliott adds, the group will have to make multiple improvements, including developing a bigger cell to contain a larger amount of tritium.
“This was the first step, albeit a very important step, along the way to building a next-generation experiment,” says Elliott, who did not contribute to the research. “As a result, the neutrino community is very impressed with the concept and execution of this experiment.”
This research was funded in part by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
Discrete bands of superconductivity
A diagram depicts unpaired spin up electrons congregating in discrete bands. Credit: Brown University

New evidence for exotic, predicted superconducting state

A research team led by a Brown University physicist has produced new evidence for an exotic superconducting state, first predicted a half-century ago, that can arise when a superconductor is exposed to a strong magnetic field.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Superconductors and magnetic fields do not usually get along. But a research team led by a Brown University physicist has produced new evidence for an exotic superconducting state, first predicted a half-century ago, that can indeed arise when a superconductor is exposed to a strong magnetic field.

“It took 50 years to show that this phenomenon indeed happens,” said Vesna Mitrovic, associate professor of physics at Brown University, who led the work. “We have identified the microscopic nature of this exotic quantum state of matter.”

The research is published in Nature Physics.

Superconductivity — the ability to conduct electric current without resistance — depends on the formation of electron twosomes known as Cooper pairs (named for Leon Cooper, a Brown University physicist who shared the Nobel Prize for identifying the phenomenon). In a normal conductor, electrons rattle around in the structure of the material, which creates resistance. But Cooper pairs move in concert in a way that keeps them from rattling around, enabling them to travel without resistance.

Magnetic fields are the enemy of Cooper pairs. In order to form a pair, electrons must be opposites in a property that physicists refer to as spin. Normally, a superconducting material has a roughly equal number of electrons with each spin, so nearly all electrons have a dance partner. But strong magnetic fields can flip “spin-down” electrons to “spin-up”, making the spin population in the material unequal.

“The question is what happens when we have more electrons with one spin than the other,” Mitrovic said. “What happens with the ones that don’t have pairs? Can we actually form superconducting states that way, and what would that state look like?”

In 1964, physicists predicted that superconductivity could indeed persist in certain kinds of materials amid a magnetic field. The prediction was that the unpaired electrons would gather together in discrete bands or stripes across the superconducting material. Those bands would conduct normally, while the rest of the material would be superconducting. This modulated superconductive state came to be known as the FFLO phase, named for theorists Peter Fulde, Richard Ferrell, Anatoly Larkin, and Yuri Ovchinniko, who predicted its existence.

To investigate the phenomenon, Mitrovic and her team used an organic superconductor with the catchy name κ-(BEDT-TTF)2Cu(NCS)2. The material consists of ultra-thin sheets stacked on top of each other and is exactly the kind of material predicted to exhibit the FFLO state.

Discrete bands of superconductivity A diagram depicts unpaired spin up electrons congregating in discrete bands. Credit: Brown University
Discrete bands of superconductivity
A diagram depicts unpaired spin up electrons congregating in discrete bands. Credit: Brown University

After applying an intense magnetic field to the material, Mitrovic and her collaborators from the French National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Grenoble probed its properties using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

What they found were regions across the material where unpaired, spin-up electrons had congregated. These “polarized” electrons behave, “like little particles constrained in a box,” Mitrovic said, and they form what are known as Andreev bound states.

“What is remarkable about these bound states is that they enable transport of supercurrents through non-superconducting regions,” Mitrovic said. “Thus, the current can travel without resistance throughout the entire material in this special superconducting state.”

Experimentalists have been trying for years to provide solid evidence that the FFLO state exists, but to little avail. Mitrovic and her colleagues took some counterintuitive measures to arrive at their findings. Specifically, they probed their material at a much higher temperature than might be expected for quantum experiments.

“Normally to observe quantum states you want to be as cold as possible, to limit thermal motion,” Mitrovic said. “But by raising the temperature we increased the energy window of our NMR probe to detect the states we were looking for. That was a breakthrough.”

This new understanding of what happens when electron spin populations become unequal could have implications beyond superconductivity, according to Mitrovic.

It might help astrophysicists to understand pulsars — densely packed neutron stars believed to harbor both superconductivity and strong magnetic fields. It could also be relevant to the field of spintronics, devices that operate based on electron spin rather than charge, made of layered ferromagnetic-superconducting structures.

“This really goes beyond the problem of superconductivity,” Mitrovic said. “It has implications for explaining many other things in the universe, such as behavior of dense quarks, particles that make up atomic nuclei.”

This research was  supported  by the French ANR (grant:06-BLAN-0111), the Euro-MagNET II network (EU Contract No. 228043), and the visiting faculty program of Université Joseph Fourier, Grenoble.

Source: Brown University