From SLAC: “Scientists Get First Direct Look at How Electrons ‘Dance’ with Vibrating Atoms”


July 6, 2017
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A precise new way to study materials shows this ‘electron-phonon coupling’ can be far stronger than predicted, and could potentially play a role in unconventional superconductivity.

In this illustration, an infrared laser beam (orange) triggers atomic vibrations in a thin layer of iron selenide, which are then recorded by ultrafast X-ray laser pulses (white) to create an ultrafast movie. The motion of the selenium atoms (red) changes the energy of the electron orbitals of the iron atoms (blue), and the resulting electron vibrations are recorded separately with a technique called ARPES (not shown). The coupling of atomic positions and electronic energies is much stronger than previously thought and may significantly impact the material’s superconductivity. (Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have made the first direct measurements, and by far the most precise ones, of how electrons move in sync with atomic vibrations rippling through an exotic material, as if they were dancing to the same beat.

The vibrations are called phonons, and the electron-phonon coupling the researchers measured was 10 times stronger than theory had predicted – making it strong enough to potentially play a role in unconventional superconductivity, which allows materials to conduct electricity with no loss at unexpectedly high temperatures.

What’s more, the approach they developed gives scientists a completely new and direct way to study a wide range of “emergent” materials whose surprising properties emerge from the collective behavior of fundamental particles, such as electrons. The new approach investigates these materials through experiments alone, rather than relying on assumptions based on theory.

The experiments were carried out with SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray free-electron laser and with a technique called angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES) on the Stanford campus. The researchers described the study today in Science.


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SLAC Campus
SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, California, SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the DOE’s Office of Science.