'Holy grail' physics discovery promises new electronic devices

August 12, 2021 // By Rich Pell
'Holy grail' physics discovery promises new electronic devices
Scientists at Northeastern University have reported a “holy grail” quantum physics discovery that could help pave the way for the next generation of electronic devices.

Their findings center mostly on the discovery of a so-called "topological axion insulator" - a unique state of quantum matter that previously was only theorized to exist.

“The topological axion insulator has a miraculous ability that allows it to have very robust metallic or conducting electrons on its surface, even though the bulk of the material is insulating,” says physicist Arun Bansil, who led a team of researchers involved in the study. “It had only been predicted theoretically - now it’s been realized experimentally.”

The axion insulating state was realized, says Bansil, by combining certain metals and observing their magnetoelectric response. In this case, the researchers used a solid-state chip composed of manganese bismuth telluride, which were adhered together in two-dimensional layers, to measure the resulting electric and magnetic properties.

“It’s like discovering a new element,” says Bansil. “And we know there’s going to be all sorts of interesting applications for this.”

Such a finding, say the researchers, has implications for a range of technologies, including sensors, switches, computers, and memory storage devices, among many others. If scientists can integrate these new topological materials into future devices, the storage, transportation, and manipulation of magnetic data could become much faster, more robust, and energy efficient.

An emerging class of electronic devices - so-called spintronics - relies upon this manipulation of quantum structure through electron “spin.” Spin, also called angular momentum, describes a fundamental property of electrons defined in one of two potential states: up or down. The way the electrons spin influence the direction of the magnetic field at work in any solid.

While traditional electronics depend on batteries that store energy in the form of chemical energy, spintronic devices could harness magnetic energy from special kinds of materials - such as the manganese bismuth telluride chip used in the study - without the chemical reaction, making it much more efficient "candidate material" for future technology, says Bansil.

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