Physicists have taken the first image of a Wigner crystal, a strange honeycomb-shaped material within another material, made entirely of electrons.
Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner first theorized about this crystal in 1934, but it took scientists more than eight decades to finally get a direct look at “electron ice.” The fascinating first image shows electrons squashed in a tight, repeating pattern, like tiny blue butterfly wings or pressures from an alien clover.
The researchers behind the study, published Sept. 29 in the journal Nature, say that while this is not the first time a Wigner crystal has been plausibly created or its properties even studied, the visual evidence they collected is the most emphatic. proof of the existence of the material yet.
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“If you say you have an electron crystal, show me the crystal,” study co-author Feng Wang, a physicist at the University of California, told Nature News.
Inside ordinary conductors like silver or copper, or semiconductors like silicon, electrons move so fast that they can barely interact with each other. But at very low temperatures, they slow down and the repulsion between negatively charged electrons begins to dominate. Once highly mobile particles are ground to a stop, arranging themselves in a repeating honeycomb pattern to minimize their overall energy use.
To see this in action, the researchers trapped electrons in the space between the atom-thick layers of two tungsten semiconductors: one made of tungsten disulfide and the other of tungsten diselenide. Then, after applying an electric field through space to remove any excess potentially disruptive electrons, the researchers cooled their sandwich of electrons down to 5 degrees above absolute zero. Sure enough, the once-fast electrons stopped, settling into the repeating structure of a Wigner crystal.
The researchers then used a device called a tunneling microscope (STM) to view this new crystal. STMs work by applying a tiny voltage across a very sharp metal tip before passing it just above a material, causing electrons to jump to the surface of the material from the tip. The speed at which electrons jump from the tip depends on what is below them, so researchers can create an image of the Braille-like outlines of a 2D surface by measuring the current flowing to the surface at each point.
But the current provided by the STM was at first too much for the delicate electron ice, “melting” it on contact. To stop this, the researchers inserted a single-atom graphene layer just above the Wigner crystal, which allowed the crystal to interact with the graphene and leave an impression that the STM could read safely, like a photocopier. By tracing the printed image onto the graphene sheet completely, the STM captured the first snapshot of the Wigner crystal, proving its existence beyond any doubt.
Now that they have conclusive proof that Wigner crystals exist, scientists can use the crystals to answer deeper questions about how multiple electrons interact with each other, such as why the crystals are arranged in a honeycomb pattern and how they “melt.” The answers will offer a rare glimpse into some of the most elusive properties of tiny particles.
Originally posted on Live Science.
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