Tag Archives: Kai Sun

Solving an iridescent mystery could lead to quantum transistors

iridescence has fascinated me (and scores of other people) since early childhood and it’s fascinating to note that scientists seems almost as enchanted as we amateurs are. The latest bit of ‘iridescent’ news comes from the University of Michigan in a Dec. 5, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

An odd, iridescent material that’s puzzled physicists for decades turns out to be an exotic state of matter that could open a new path to quantum computers and other next-generation electronics.

Physicists at the University of Michigan have discovered or confirmed several properties of the compound samarium hexaboride that raise hopes for finding the silicon of the quantum era. They say their results also close the case of how to classify the material–a mystery that has been investigated since the late 1960s.

A Dec. 5, 2014 University of Michigan news release, which originated the news item, provides more details about the mystery and the efforts to resolve it,

The researchers provide the first direct evidence that samarium hexaboride, abbreviated SmB6, is a topological insulator. Topological insulators are, to physicists, an exciting class of solids that conduct electricity like a metal across their surface, but block the flow of current like rubber through their interior. They behave in this two-faced way despite that their chemical composition is the same throughout.

The U-M scientists used a technique called torque magnetometry to observe tell-tale oscillations in the material’s response to a magnetic field that reveal how electric current moves through it. Their technique also showed that the surface of samarium hexaboride holds rare Dirac electrons, particles with the potential to help researchers overcome one of the biggest hurdles in quantum computing.

These properties are particularly enticing to scientists because SmB6 is considered a strongly correlated material. Its electrons interact more closely with one another than most solids. This helps its interior maintain electricity-blocking behavior.

This deeper understanding of samarium hexaboride raises the possibility that engineers might one day route the flow of electric current in quantum computers like they do on silicon in conventional electronics, said Lu Li, assistant professor of physics in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and a co-author of a paper on the findings published in Science.

“Before this, no one had found Dirac electrons in a strongly correlated material,” Li said. “We thought strong correlation would hurt them, but now we know it doesn’t. While I don’t think this material is the answer, now we know that this combination of properties is possible and we can look for other candidates.”

The drawback of samarium hexaboride is that the researchers only observed these behaviors at ultracold temperatures.

Quantum computers use particles like atoms or electrons to perform processing and memory tasks. They could offer dramatic increases in computing power due to their ability to carry out scores of calculations at once. Because they could factor numbers much faster than conventional computers, they would greatly improve computer security.

In quantum computers, “qubits” stand in for the 0s and 1s of conventional computers’ binary code. While a conventional bit can be either a 0 or a 1, a qubit could be both at the same time—only until you measure it, that is. Measuring a quantum system forces it to pick one state, which eliminates its main advantage.

Dirac electrons, named after the English physicist whose equations describe their behavior, straddle the realms of classical and quantum physics, Li said. Working together with other materials, they could be capable of clumping together into a new kind of qubit that would change the properties of a material in a way that could be measured indirectly, without the qubit sensing it. The qubit could remain in both states.

While these applications are intriguing, the researchers are most enthusiastic about the fundamental science they’ve uncovered.

“In the science business you have concepts that tell you it should be this or that and when it’s two things at once, that’s a sign you have something interesting to find,” said Jim Allen, an emeritus professor of physics who studied samarium hexaboride for 30 years. “Mysteries are always intriguing to people who do curiosity-driven research.”

Allen thought for years that samarium hexaboride must be a flawed insulator that behaved like a metal at low temperatures because of defects and impurities, but he couldn’t align that with all of its other properties.

“The prediction several years ago about it being a topological insulator makes a lightbulb go off if you’re an old guy like me and you’ve been living with this stuff your whole life,” Allen said.

In 2010, Kai Sun, assistant professor of physics at U-M, led a group that first posited that SmB6 might be a topological insulator. He and Allen were also involved in seminal U-M experiments led by physics professor Cagliyan Kurdak in 2012 that showed indirectly that the hypothesis was correct.

“But the scientific community is always critical,” Sun said. “They want very strong evidence. We think this experiment finally provides direct proof of our theory.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ latest paper,

Two-dimensional Fermi surfaces in Kondo insulator SmB6 by G. Li, Z. Xiang, F. Yu, T. Asaba, B. Lawson, P. Cai1, C. Tinsman, A. Berkley, S. Wolgast, Y. S. Eo, Dae-Jeong Kim, C. Kurdak, J. W. Allen, K. Sun, X. H. Chen, Y. Y. Wang, Z. Fisk, and Lu Li. Science 5 December 2014: Vol. 346 no. 6214 pp. 1208-1212 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250366

This paper is behind a paywall.

Another day, another solar cell improvement: replacing platinum with 3D graphene

On the plus side, this may replace platinum but it does seem to be one of a plethora of solar cell improvements that don’t make much difference in the current marketplace as this and other improvements are still at the laboratory stage.  Still, it’s encouraging to remember that scientific and technical progress in an area can be agonizingly slow in the early stages only to gain speed at an exponential rate in later stages of development. Fingers crossed this is the case with solar cells.

From the Aug. 20, 2013 Michigan Technological University news release by Marcia Goodrich (also on EurekAlert),

One of the most promising types of solar cells has a few drawbacks. …

Dye-sensitized solar cells are thin, flexible, easy to make and very good at turning sunshine into electricity. However, a key ingredient is one of the most expensive metals on the planet: platinum. While only small amounts are needed, at $1,500 an ounce, the cost of the silvery metal is still significant.

Yun Hang Hu, the Charles and Caroll McArthur Professor of Materials Science and Engineering [Michigan Technological University], has developed a new, inexpensive material that could replace the platinum in solar cells without degrading their efficiency: 3D graphene.

Regular graphene is a famously two-dimensional form of carbon just a molecule or so thick. Hu and his team invented a novel approach to synthesize a unique 3D version with a honeycomb-like structure. To do so, they combined lithium oxide with carbon monoxide in a chemical reaction that forms lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) and the honeycomb graphene. The Li2CO3 helps shape the graphene sheets and isolates them from each other, preventing the formation of garden-variety graphite.  Furthermore, the Li2CO3 particles can be easily removed from 3D honeycomb-structured graphene by an acid.

The researchers determined that the 3D honeycomb graphene had excellent conductivity and high catalytic activity, raising the possibility that it could be used for energy storage and conversion. So they replaced the platinum counter electrode in a dye-sensitized solar cell with one made of the 3D honeycomb graphene. Then they put the solar cell in the sunshine and measured its output.

The cell with the 3D graphene counter electrode converted 7.8 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, nearly as much as the conventional solar cell using costly platinum (8 percent).

Synthesizing the 3D honeycomb graphene is neither expensive nor difficult, said Hu, and making it into a counter electrode posed no special challenges.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

3D Honeycomb-Like Structured Graphene and Its High Efficiency as a Counter-Electrode Catalyst for Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells by Yun Hang Hu, Hui Wang, Franklin Tao, Dario J. Stacchiola, and Kai Sun. Angewandte Chemie, International Edition, Article first published online: 29 JUL 2013 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201303497

The article is behind a paywall.