A group of physicists from the United States and Israel has discovered a novel phase of matter that is characterized by an unusual ordering of electrons.
“The discovery of this phase was completely unexpected and not based on any prior theoretical prediction. The whole field of electronic materials is driven by the discovery of new phases, which provide the playgrounds in which to search for new macroscopic physical properties,” said Dr David Hsieh of California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.
Dr Hsieh and his colleagues from Tel Aviv University, California Institute of Technology, Iowa State University, and the University of Kentucky, made the discovery while testing a laser-based measurement technique that they recently developed to look for what is called multipolar order.
“To understand multipolar order, first consider a crystal with electrons moving around throughout its interior. Under certain conditions, it can be energetically favorable for these electrical charges to pile up in a regular, repeating fashion inside the crystal, forming what is called a charge-ordered phase,” the scientists said.
“The building block of this type of order, namely charge, is simply a scalar quantity – that is, it can be described by just a numerical value, or magnitude. In addition to charge, electrons also have a degree of freedom known as spin.”
“When spins line up parallel to each other, they form a ferromagnet. Because spin has both a magnitude and a direction, a spin-ordered phase is described by a vector.”
Over the several decades, scientists have developed sophisticated techniques to look for both of these types of phases.
“But what if the electrons in a material are not ordered in one of those ways? In other words, what if the order were described not by a scalar or vector but by something with more dimensionality, like a matrix?”
“This could happen, for example, if the building block of the ordered phase was a pair of oppositely pointing spins described by what is known as a magnetic quadrupole. Such examples of multipolar-ordered phases of matter are difficult to detect using traditional experimental probes.”
As it turns out, the new phase that Dr Hsieh and co-authors identified is precisely this type of multipolar order.
To detect multipolar order, the team utilized an effect called optical harmonic generation, which is exhibited by all solids but is usually extremely weak.
“Typically, when you look at an object illuminated by a single frequency of light, all of the light that you see reflected from the object is at that frequency. When you shine a red laser pointer at a wall, for example, your eye detects red light.”
“However, for all materials, there is a tiny amount of light bouncing off at integer multiples of the incoming frequency. So with the red laser pointer, there will also be some blue light bouncing off of the wall. You just do not see it because it is such a small percentage of the total light. These multiples are called optical harmonics.”
The physicists exploited the fact that changes in the symmetry of a crystal will affect the strength of each harmonic differently.
Since the emergence of multipolar ordering changes the symmetry of the crystal in a very specific way, their idea was that the optical harmonic response of a crystal could serve as a fingerprint of multipolar order.
“We found that light reflected at the second harmonic frequency revealed a set of symmetries completely different from those of the known crystal structure, whereas this effect was completely absent for light reflected at the fundamental frequency. This is a very clear fingerprint of a specific type of multipolar order,” Dr Hsieh said.
The specific compound that the team studied was strontium-iridium oxide (Sr2IrO4).
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of interest in strontium-iridium oxide owing to certain features it shares with copper-oxide-based compounds (cuprates).
Like the cuprates, iridates are electrically insulating antiferromagnets that become increasingly metallic as electrons are added to or removed from them through a process called chemical doping.
A high enough level of doping will transform cuprates into high-temperature superconductors, and as cuprates evolve from being insulators to superconductors, they first transition through a mysterious phase known as the pseudogap, where an additional amount of energy is required to strip electrons out of the material.
For years, physicists have debated the origin of the pseudogap and its relationship to superconductivity – whether it is a necessary precursor to superconductivity or a competing phase with a distinct set of symmetry properties.
If that relationship were better understood, it might be possible to develop materials that superconduct at temperatures approaching room temperature.
Recently, a pseudogap phase also has been observed in strontium-iridium oxide. And Dr Hsieh and co-authors have found that the multipolar order they have identified exists over a doping and temperature window where the pseudogap is present.
“Given the highly similar phenomenology of the iridates and cuprates, perhaps iridates will help us resolve some of the longstanding debates about the relationship between the pseudogap and high-temperature superconductivity,” Dr Hsieh said.
“The finding emphasizes the importance of developing new tools to try to uncover new phenomena.”
“Furthermore, these multipolar orders might exist in many more materials. Sr2IrO4 is the first thing we looked at, so these orders could very well be lurking in other materials as well, and that’s exactly what we are pursuing next,” he said.
The findings were published today in the journal Nature Physics.