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10 October 2015

Scientists paint quantum electronics with beams of light

A team of scientists from the University of Chicago and the Pennsylvania State University have accidentally discovered a new way of using light to draw and erase quantum-mechanical circuits in a unique class of materials called topological insulators.

In contrast to using advanced nanofabrication facilities based on chemical processing of materials, this flexible technique allows for rewritable 'optical fabrication' of devices. This finding is likely to spawn new developments in emerging technologies such as low-power electronics based on the spin of electrons or ultrafast quantum computers.

The research is published today in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's new online journal Science Advances, where it is featured on the journal's front page.

"This observation came as a complete surprise," said David D. Awschalom, Liew Family Professor and deputy director in the Institute of Molecular Engineering at UChicago, and one of two lead researchers on the project. "It's one of those rare moments in experimental science where a seemingly random event—turning on the room lights—generated unexpected effects with potentially important impacts in science and technology."

The electrons in topological insulators have unique quantum properties that many scientists believe will be useful for developing spin-based electronics and quantum computers. However, making even the simplest experimental circuits with these materials has proved difficult because traditional semiconductor engineering techniques tend to destroy their fragile quantum properties. Even a brief exposure to air can reduce their quality.

In Science Advances, the researchers report the discovery of an optical effect that allows them to "tune" the energy of electrons in these materials using light, and without ever having to touch the material itself. They have used it to draw and erase p-n junctions—one of the central components of a transistor—in a topological insulator for the first time.

Like many advances in science, the path to this discovery had an unexpected twist.

"To be honest, we were trying to study something completely different," said Andrew Yeats, a graduate student in Awschalom's laboratory and the paper's lead author. "There was a slow drift in our measurements that we traced to a particular type of fluorescent lights in our lab. At first we were glad to be rid of it, and then it struck us—our room lights were doing something that people work very hard to do in these materials."

"It's like having a sort of quantum etch-a-sketch in our lab," he said. They also found that bright red light counteracted the effect of the ultraviolet light, allowing them to both write and erase. "Instead of spending weeks in the cleanroom and potentially contaminating our materials," said Awschalom, "now we can sketch and measure devices for our experiments in real time. When we're done, we just erase it and make something else. We can do this in less than a second."

"It's not just that it's faster and easier. This effect could allow electrical tuning of materials in a wide range of optical, magnetic and spectroscopic experiments where electrical contacts are extremely difficult or simply impossible."