Perfect Quantum Portal Emerges at Exotic Interface

klein tunneling gallery lrIn Klein tunneling, an electron can transit perfectly through a barrier. In a new experiment, researchers observed the Klein tunneling of electrons into a special kind of superconductor. (Credit: E. Edwards/JQI)

A junction between an ordinary metal and a special kind of superconductor has provided a robust platform to observe Klein tunneling.

Researchers at the University of Maryland have captured the most direct evidence to date of a quantum quirk that allows particles to tunnel through a barrier like it’s not even there. The result, featured on the cover of the June 20, 2019 issue of the journal Nature, may enable engineers to design more uniform components for future quantum computers, quantum sensors and other devices.

The new experiment is an observation of Klein tunneling, a special case of a more ordinary quantum phenomenon. In the quantum world, tunneling allows particles like electrons to pass through a barrier even if they don’t have enough energy to actually climb over it. A taller barrier usually makes this harder and lets fewer particles through.

Klein tunneling occurs when the barrier becomes completely transparent, opening up a portal that particles can traverse regardless of the barrier’s height. Scientists and engineers from UMD’s Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials (CNAM), the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) and the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC), with appointments in UMD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Department of Physics, have made the most compelling measurements yet of the effect.

“Klein tunneling was originally a relativistic effect, first predicted almost a hundred years ago,” says Ichiro Takeuchi, a professor of materials science and engineering (MSE) at UMD and the senior author of the new study. “Until recently, though, you could not observe it.”

It was nearly impossible to collect evidence for Klein tunneling where it was first predicted—the world of high-energy quantum particles moving close to the speed of light. But in the past several decades, scientists have discovered that some of the rules governing fast-moving quantum particles also apply to the comparatively sluggish particles traveling near the surface of some unusual materials.

One such material—which researchers used in the new study—is samarium hexaboride (SmB6), a substance that becomes a topological insulator at low temperatures. In a normal insulator like wood, rubber or air, electrons are trapped, unable to move even when voltage is applied. Thus, unlike their free-roaming comrades in a metal wire, electrons in an insulator can’t conduct a current.

Topological insulators such as SmB6 behave like hybrid materials. At low enough temperatures, the interior of SmB6 is an insulator, but the surface is metallic and allows electrons some freedom to move around. Additionally, the direction that the electrons move becomes locked to an intrinsic quantum property called spin that can be oriented up or down. Electrons moving to the right will always have their spin pointing up, for example, and electrons moving left will have their spin pointing down.

The metallic surface of SmB6 would not have been enough to spot Klein tunneling, though. It turned out that Takeuchi and colleagues needed to transform the surface of SmB6 into a superconductor—a material that can conduct electrical current without any resistance.

To turn SmB6 into a superconductor, they put a thin film of it atop a layer of yttrium hexaboride (YB6). When the whole assembly was cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero, the YB6 became a superconductor and, due to its proximity, the metallic surface of SmB6 became a superconductor, too.

It was a “piece of serendipity” that SmB6 and its yttrium-swapped relative shared the same crystal structure, says Johnpierre Paglione, a professor of physics at UMD, the director of CNAM and a co-author of the research paper. “However, the multidisciplinary team we have was one of the keys to this success. Having experts on topological physics, thin-film synthesis, spectroscopy and theoretical understanding really got us to this point,” Paglione adds.

The combination proved the right mix to observe Klein tunneling. By bringing a tiny metal tip into contact with the top of the SmB6, the team measured the transport of electrons from the tip into the superconductor. They observed a perfectly doubled conductance—a measure of how the current through a material changes as the voltage across it is varied.

“When we first observed the doubling, I didn’t believe it,” Takeuchi says. “After all, it is an unusual observation, so I asked my postdoc Seunghun Lee and research scientist Xiaohang Zhang to go back and do the experiment again.”

When Takeuchi and his experimental colleagues convinced themselves that the measurements were accurate, they didn’t initially understand the source of the doubled conductance. So they started searching for an explanation. UMD’s Victor Galitski, a JQI Fellow, a professor of physics and a member of CMTC, suggested that Klein tunneling might be involved.

“At first, it was just a hunch,” Galitski says. “But over time we grew more convinced that the Klein scenario may actually be the underlying cause of the observations.”

Valentin Stanev, an associate research scientist in MSE and a research scientist at JQI, took Galitski’s hunch and worked out a careful theory of how Klein tunneling could emerge in the SmB6 system—ultimately making predictions that matched the experimental data well.

The theory suggested that Klein tunneling manifests itself in this system as a perfect form of Andreev reflection, an effect present at every boundary between a metal and a superconductor. Andreev reflection can occur whenever an electron from the metal hops onto a superconductor. Inside the superconductor, electrons are forced to live in pairs, so when an electron hops on, it picks up a buddy.

In order to balance the electric charge before and after the hop, a particle with the opposite charge—which scientists call a hole—must reflect back into the metal. This is the hallmark of Andreev reflection: an electron goes in, a hole comes back out. And since a hole moving in one direction carries the same current as an electron moving in the opposite direction, this whole process doubles the overall conductance—the signature of Klein tunneling through a junction of a metal and a topological superconductor.

In conventional junctions between a metal and a superconductor, there are always some electrons that don’t make the hop. They scatter off the boundary, reducing the amount of Andreev reflection and preventing an exact doubling of the conductance.

But because the electrons in the surface of SmB6 have their direction of motion tied to their spin, electrons near the boundary can’t bounce back—meaning that they will always transit straight into the superconductor.

“Klein tunneling had been seen in graphene as well,” Takeuchi says. “But here, because it’s a superconductor, I would say the effect is more spectacular. You get this exact doubling and a complete cancellation of the scattering, and there is no analog of that in the graphene experiment.”

Junctions between superconductors and other materials are ingredients in some proposed quantum computer architectures, as well as in precision sensing devices. The bane of these components has always been that each junction is slightly different, Takeuchi says, requiring endless tuning and calibration to reach the best performance. But with Klein tunneling in SmB6, researchers might finally have an antidote to that irregularity.

“In electronics, device-to-device spread is the number one enemy,” Takeuchi says. “Here is a phenomenon that gets rid of the variability.”

Story by Chris Cesare

In addition to Takeuchi, Paglione, Lee, Zhang, Galitski and Stanev, co-authors of the research paper include Drew Stasak, a former research assistant in MSE; Jack Flowers, a former graduate student in MSE; Joshua S. Higgins, a research scientist in CNAM and the Department of Physics; Sheng Dai, a research fellow in the department of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of California, Irvine (UCI); Thomas Blum, a graduate student in physics and astronomy at UCI; Xiaoqing Pan, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science and of physics and astronomy at UCI; Victor M. Yakovenko, a JQI Fellow, professor of physics at UMD and a member of CMTC; and Richard L. Greene, a professor of physics at UMD and a member of CNAM.

Ring Resonators Corner Light

hafezi quadrupole2 copy

Researchers at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) have created the first silicon chip that can reliably constrain light to its four corners. The effect, which arises from interfering optical pathways, isn't altered by small defects during fabrication and could eventually enable the creation of robust sources of quantum light.

That robustness is due to topological physics, which describes the properties of materials that are insensitive to small changes in geometry. The cornering of light, which was reported June 17 in Nature Photonics, is a realization of a new topological effect, first predicted in 2017.

In particular, the new work is a demonstration of quadrupole topological physics. A quadrupole is an arrangement of four poles—sinks and sources of force fields such as electrical charges or the poles of a magnet. You can visualize an electric quadrupole by imagining charges on each corner of a square that alternate positive-negative-positive-negative as you go along the perimeter.

The fact that the cornering arises from quadrupole physics instead of the physics of dipoles—that is, arrangements of just two poles—means it a higher-order topological effect.

Although the cornering effect has been observed in acoustic and microwave systems before, the new work is the first time it’s been observed in an optical system, says Associate Professor and JQI Fellow Mohammad Hafezi, the paper’s senior author. "We have been developing integrated silicon photonic systems to realize ideas derived from topology in a physical system," Hafezi says. "The fact that we use components compatible with current technology means that, if these systems are robust, they could possibly be translated into immediate applications."

In the new work, laser light is injected into a grid of resonators—grooved loops in the silicon that confine the light to rings. By placing the resonators at carefully measured distances, it's possible to adjust the interaction between neighboring resonators and alter the path that light takes through the grid.

The cumulative effect is that the light in the middle of the chip interferes with itself, causing most of the light injected into the chip to spend its time at the four corners.

Light doesn’t have an electric charge, but the presence or absence of light in a given resonator provides a kind of polar behavior. In this way, the pattern of resonators on the chip corresponds to a collection of interacting quadrupoles—precisely the conditions required by the first prediction of higher-order topological states of matter.

To test their fabricated pattern, Hafezi and his colleagues injected light into each corner of the chip and then captured an image of the chip with a microscope. In the collected light, they saw four bright peaks, one at each corner of the chip.

To show that the cornered light was trapped by topology, and not merely a result of where they injected the lasers, they tested a chip with the bottom two rows of resonators shifted. This changed their interactions with the resonators above, and, at least theoretically, changed where the bright spots should appear. They again injected the light at the corners, and this time—just as theory predicted—the lower two bright spots showed up above the rows of shifted resonators and not at the physical corners.

Despite the protection from small changes in resonator placement offered by topology, a second, more destructive fabrication defect remains in these chips. Since each resonator isn't exactly the same, the four points of light at the corners all shine with slightly different frequencies. This means that, for the moment, the chip may be no better than a single resonator if used as a source of photons—the quantum particles of light that many hope to harness as carriers of quantum information in future devices and networks.

"If you have many sources that are forced by topology to spit out identical photons, then you could interfere them, and that would be a game-changer," says Sunil Mittal, the lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at JQI. "I hope this work actually excites theorists to think about maybe looking for models that are insensitive to this lingering disorder in resonator frequencies."

Story by Chris Cesare

Hafezi and Mittal also have affiliations in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as the Institue for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. Hafezi is also an associate professor in the Department of Physics.

Doug Currie Comments on Lunar Laser Ranging Retroreflector Arrays in Eos

apollo15 lrrrpart hiA portion of the Apollo 15 lunar laser ranging retroreflector array, as placed on the Moon and photographed by D. Scott. Credits: NASA/D. Scott

In an Eos article titled, "Seeing the Light," UMD Physics Research Scientist and Professor Emeritus Doug Currie describes the current retroreflectors installed on the Moon and his proposal to send a new module as part of an upcoming lunar mission. The article details how retroreflectors installed on the Moon during the Apollo 11, 14 and 15 missions are still used today, but that improvements are needed.

Professor Julie McEnery Discusses CTA and Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope in SciTech Europa

 CTAPhoto Credit: CTAO/M-A. Besel/IAC (G.P. Diaz)/ESOIn an interview with SciTech Europa, Fermi Project Scientist at the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory, Astrophysics Science Division of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and University of Maryland Adjunct Associate Professor Julie McEnery answers questions about the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) and its impact on astrophysics. She also explores the integration of Fermi Gamma ray Space Telescope and CTA.