If a new study from Princeton and the University of Texas-Austin is on point, the world may have to brace itself for an even faster generation of consumer and industrial electronics.
For the first time, the study participants say that an experiment has directly imaged electron orbits in a high-magnetic field, illuminating an unusual collective behavior in electrons and suggesting new ways of manipulating the charged particles.
According to Science Daily, the Princeton University and the University of Texas-Austin study (Observation of a nematic quantum Hall liquid on the surface of bismuth), demonstrates that the electrons—when kept at very low temperatures where their quantum behaviors emerge—can spontaneously begin to travel in identical elliptical paths on the surface of a crystal of bismuth, forming a quantum fluid state.
This behavior was anticipated theoretically during the past two decades by researchers from Princeton and other universities. "This is the first visualization of a quantum fluid of electrons in which interactions between the electrons make them collectively choose orbits with these unusual shapes," said Ali Yazdani, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics at Princeton, who led the research.
So what does this new discovery mean for the electronics sector? According to the research report, fundamental explorations of materials may provide the basis for faster and more efficient electronic technologies. Today's electronic devices, from computers to cellphones, use processors made from silicon. With silicon reaching its maximum capacity for information processing, researchers are looking to other materials and mechanisms.
One area of progress has been in two-dimensional materials, Science Daily reports, which allow control of electron motion by breaking the particles away from the constraints of the underlying crystal lattice. This involves moving electrons among "pockets" or "valleys" of possible states created by the crystal. Some researchers are working on ways to apply this process in an emerging field of research known as "valleytronics."
The team at Princeton used a scanning tunneling microscope to visualize electrons on the surface of a bismuth crystal at extremely low temperatures where quantum behaviors can be observed. Because electrons are too small to be seen, the scanning tunneling microscope has a miniscule electrically charged needle that detects electrons as it scans the crystal surface.
The study provides experimental evidence for ideas predicted over the past two decades, including theoretical work by Princeton Professor of Physics Shivaji Sondhi and others.
Eduardo Fradkin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, contributed to early predictions of this behavior in a paper published in Nature in 1998. "What Yazdani's experiments give us is a more quantitative test to explore the collective property of the electrons in this material," said Fradkin, in the Science Daily article. "This is something we made arguments for, and only now has it been confirmed in this particular material. For me, this is very satisfying to see."