It’s not your grandmother’s fridge magnet.
An exotic form of magnetism has been discovered and linked to an equally exotic type of electrons, according to scientists who analyzed a new crystal in which they appear at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Magnetism is created and protected by the crystal’s unique electronic structure, providing a mechanism that could be exploited for fast and robust information storage devices.
The newly invented material has an unusual structure that conducts electricity but causes the flowing electrons to behave like massless particles, the magnetism of which is related to the direction of their movement. In other materials, such as Weyl electrons
have given rise to new behaviors related to electrical conductivity. In this case, however, the electrons promote the spontaneous formation of a magnetic spiral.
“Our research shows a rare example of these particles causing collective magnetism,” said Collin Broholm, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University who led experimental work at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR). “Our experiment illustrates a unique form of magnetism that can originate from Weyl electrons.”
The conclusions, which appear in Natural materials, reveal a complex relationship between the material, the electrons which pass through it in the form of current and the magnetism exhibited by the material.
In a refrigerator magnet, we sometimes imagine each of its iron atoms as being pierced with a bar magnet with its “north” pole pointing in a certain direction. This image refers to the spin orientations of atoms, which line up in parallel. The material studied by the team is different. It is a “semi-metal” composed of silicon and the metals aluminum and neodymium. Together, these three elements form a crystal, which implies that its component atoms are arranged in a regular repeating pattern. However, it is a crystal that breaks inversion symmetry, meaning that the repeating pattern is different on one side of the unit cells of a crystal – the smallest building block in a crystal lattice – from the other. This arrangement stabilizes the electrons flowing through the crystal, which in turn causes unusual behavior in its magnetism.
The stability of electrons is manifested by uniformity in the direction of their spins. In most electrically conductive materials, such as copper wire, the electrons passing through the wire have spins that point in random directions. This is not the case in the semi-metal, whose broken symmetry transforms the flowing electrons into Weyl electrons whose spins are oriented either in the direction of movement of the electron, or in the exact opposite direction. . It is this locking of the spins of the Weyl electrons in their direction of motion – their momentum – that causes the rare magnetic behavior of the semi-metal.
“Our experiment illustrates a unique form of magnetism that can originate from Weyl electrons.” – Collin Broholm, physicist at Johns Hopkins University
The three types of atoms in the material all conduct electricity, providing stepping stones for electrons as they jump from atom to the atom. However, only neodymium (Nd) atoms exhibit magnetism. They are sensitive to the influence of Weyl electrons, which curiously push the spins of the Nd atom. Look along any row of Nd atoms that runs diagonally across the semi-metal, and you’ll see what the research team calls a “spinning spiral.”
“A simplified way to imagine it is for the first Nd atom to point at 12 o’clock, then the next at 4 o’clock, then the third at 8 o’clock,” Broholm said. “Then the pattern repeats. This beautiful spin “texture” is driven by Weyl electrons when they visit neighboring Nd atoms. “
It took a collaboration between many groups within the Institute for Quantum Matter at Johns Hopkins University to reveal the special magnetism appearing in the crystal. It included groups working on crystal synthesis, sophisticated numerical calculations, and neutron scattering experiments.
“For neutron scattering, we have benefited greatly from the large amount of neutron diffraction beam time available to us at the NIST Center for Neutron Research,” said Jonathan Gaudet, one of the co-authors of the article. . “Without the beam time, we would have missed out on this great physical news.”
Each loop of the spinning spiral is approximately 150 nanometers long, and the spirals only appear at cold temperatures below 7 K. Broholm said that there are materials with similar physical properties that work at room temperature. , and that they could be exploited to create effective magnetic properties. memory devices.
“Magnetic memory technology like hard drives generally requires you to create a magnetic field for them to work,” he said. “With this class of materials, you can store information without needing to apply or sense a magnetic field. Reading and writing information electrically is faster and more robust.
Understanding the effects Weyl electrons cause could also shed light on other materials that have left physicists in consternation.
“Basically, we might be able to create a variety of materials that have different internal rotational characteristics – and maybe we already have it,” Broholm said. “As a community, we have created a lot of magnetic structures that we don’t immediately understand. After seeing the special character of Weyl-mediated magnetism, we may finally be able to understand and use such exotic magnetic structures. ”
Reference: “Weyl-mediated helic magnetism in NdAlSi” by Jonathan Gaudet, Hung-Yu Yang, Santu Baidya, Baozhu Lu, Guangyong Xu, Yang Zhao, Jose A. Rodriguez-Rivera, Christina M. Hoffmann, David E. Graf, Darius H. Torchinsky, Predrag Nikolić, David Vanderbilt, Fazel Tafti and Collin L. Broholm, August 19, 2021, Natural materials.
DOI: 10.1038 / s41563-021-01062-8
The study data was obtained in part with the Multi-Axis Crystal Spectrometer (MACS), which is part of the Center for High Resolution Neutron Scattering (CHRNS), a national user facility jointly funded by the NCNR and the National Science Foundation (NSF).