Category Archives: Review

Wannier-Stark Ladder, Wavefunction Localization and Bloch Oscillations

Most people who study solid state physics are told at some point that in a totally pure sample where there is no scattering, one should observe an AC response to a DC electric field, with oscillations at the Bloch frequency (\omega_B). These are the so-called Bloch oscillations, which were predicted by C. Zener in this paper.

However, the actual observation of Bloch oscillations is not as simple as the textbooks would make it seem. There is an excellent Physics Today article by E. Mendez and G. Bastard that outline some of the challenges associated with observing Bloch oscillations (which was written while this paper was being published!). Since the textbook treatments often use semi-classical equations of motion to demonstrate the existence of Bloch oscillations in a periodic potential, they implicitly assume transport of an electron wave-packet. To generate this wave-packet is non-trivial in a solid.

In fact, if one undertakes a full quantum mechanical treatment of electrons in a periodic potential under the influence of an electric field, one arrives at the Wannier-Stark ladder, which shows that an electric field can localize electrons! It is this ladder and the corresponding localization which was key to observing Bloch oscillations in semiconductor superlattices.

Let me use the two-well potential to give you a picture of how this localization might occur. Imagine symmetric potential wells, where the lowest energy eigenstates look like so (where S and A label the symmetric and anti-symmetric states):

Now, imagine that I start to make the wells a little asymmetric. What happens in this case? Well, it turns out that that the electrons start to localize in the following way (for the formerly symmetric and anti-symmetric states):

G. Wannier was able to solve the Schrodinger equation with an applied electric field in a periodic potential in full and showed that the eigenstates of the problem form a Stark ladder. This means that the eigenstates are of identical functional form from quantum well to quantum well (unlike in the double-well shown above) and the energies of the eigenstates are spaced apart by \Delta E=\hbar \omega_B! The potential is shown schematically below. It is also shown that as the potential wells slant more and more (i.e. with larger electric fields), the wavefunctions become more localized (the image is taken from here (pdf!)):

screenshot-from-2016-12-01-222719

A nice numerical solution from the same document shows the wavefunctions for a periodic potential well profile with a strong electric field, exhibiting a strong wavefunction localization. Notice that the wavefunctions are of identical form from well to well.

StarkLadder.png

What can be seen in this solution is that the stationary states are split by \hbar \omega_B, but much like the quantum harmonic oscillator (where the levels are split by \hbar \omega), nothing is actually oscillating until one has a wavepacket (or a linear superposition of eigenstates). Therefore, the Bloch oscillations cannot be observed in the ground state (which includes the the applied electric field) in a semiconducting superlattice since it is an insulator! One must first generate a wavepacket in the solid.

In the landmark paper that finally announced the existence of Bloch oscillations, Waschke et. al. generated a wavepacket in a GaAs-GaAlAs superlattice using a laser pulse. The pulse was incident on a sample with an applied electric field along the superlattice direction, and they were able to observe radiation emitted from the sample due to the Bloch oscillations. I should mention that superlattices must be used to observe the Wannier-Stark ladder and Bloch oscillations because \omega_B, which scales with the width of the quantum well, needs to be fast enough that the electrons don’t scatter from impurities and phonons. Here is the famous plot from the aforementioned paper showing that the frequency of the emitted radiation from the Bloch oscillations can be tuned using an electric field:

PRLBlochOscillations.png

This is a pretty remarkable experiment, one of those which took 60 years from its first proposal to finally be observed.

An Interesting Research Avenue, an Update, and a Joke

An Interesting Research Avenue: A couple months ago, Stephane Mangin of the Insitut Jean Lamour gave a talk on all-optical helicity-dependent magnetic switching (what a mouthful!) at Argonne, which was fascinating. I was reminded of the talk yesterday when a review article on the topic appeared on the arXiv. The basic phenomenon is that in certain materials, one is able to send in a femtosecond laser pulse onto a magnetic material and switch the direction of magnetization using circularly polarized light. This effect is reversible (in the sense that circularly polarized light in the opposite direction will result in a magnetization in the opposite direction) and is reproducible. During the talk, Mangin was able to show us some remarkable videos of the phenomenon, which unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find online.

The initial study that sparked a lot of this work was this paper by Beaurepaire et al., which showed ultrafast demagnetization in nickel films in 1996, a whole 20 years ago! The more recent study that triggered most of the current work was this paper by Stanciu et al. in which it was shown that the magnetization direction could be switched with a circularly polarized 40-femtosecond laser pulse on ferromagnetic film alloys of GdFeCo. For a while, it was thought that this effect was specific to the GdFeCo material class, but it has since been shown that all-optical helicity-dependent magnetic switching is actually a more general phenomenon and has been observed now in many materials (see this paper by Mangin and co-workers for example). It will be interesting to see how this research plays out with respect to the magnetic storage industry. The ability to read and write on the femtosecond to picosecond timescale is definitely something to watch out for.

Update: After my post on the Gibbs paradox last week, a few readers pointed out that there exists some controversy over the textbook explanation that I presented. I am grateful that they provided links to some articles discussing the subtleties involved in the paradox. Although one commenter suggested Appendix D of E. Atlee Jackson’s textbook, I was not able to get a hold of this. It looks like a promising textbook, so I may end up just buying it, however!

The links that I found helpful about the Gibbs paradox were Jaynes’ article (pdf!) and this article by R. Swendsen. In particular, I found Jaynes’ discussion of Whifnium and Whoofnium interesting in the role that ignorance and knowledge plays our ability to extract work from a partitioned gases. Swendsen’s tries to redefine entropy classically (what he calls Boltzmann’s definition of entropy), which I have to think about a little more. But at the moment, I don’t think I buy his argument that this resolves the Gibbs paradox completely.

A Joke: 

Q: What did Mrs. Cow say to Mr. Cow?

A: Hubby, could you please mooo the lawn?

Q: What did Mr. Cow say back to Mrs. Cow?

A: But, sweetheart, then what am I going to eat?

Coupled and Synchronized Metronomes

A couple years ago, I saw P. Littlewood give a colloquium on exciton-polariton condensation. To introduce the idea, he performed a little experiment, a variation of an experiment first performed and published by Christiaan Huygens. Although he performed it with only two metronomes, below is a video of the same experiment performed with 32 metronomes.

A very important ingredient in getting this to work is the suspended foam underneath the metronomes. In effect, the foam is a field that couples the oscillators.

Acoustic Plasmon

In regards to the posts I’ve made about plasmons in the past (see here and here for instance), it seems like the plasmon in a metal will always exist at a finite energy at q=0 due to the long-ranged nature of the Coulomb interaction. Back in 1956, D. Pines published a paper, where in collaboration with P. Nozieres, he proposed a method by which an acoustic plasmon could indeed exist.

The idea is actually quite simple from a conceptual standpoint, so a cartoony description should suffice in describing how this is possible. The first important ingredient in realizing an acoustic plasmon is two types of charge carriers. Pines, in his original paper, chose s-electrons and d-electrons from two separate bands to illustrate his point. However, electrons from one band and holes from another could also suffice. The second important ingredient in realizing the acoustic plasmon is that the masses of the two types of carriers must be very different (which is why Pines chose light s-electrons and heavy d-electrons).

 

Screening of heavy charge carrier by light charge carrier

 

So why are these two features necessary? Well, simply put, the light charge carriers can screen the heavy charge carriers, effectively reducing the range of the Coulomb interaction (see image above). Such a phenomenon is very familiar to all of us who study solids. If, for instance, the interaction between the ions on the lattice sites in a simple 3D monatomic solid were not screened by the electrons, the longitudinal acoustic phonon would necessarily be gapped because of the Coulomb interaction (forgetting, for the moment, about what the lack of charge neutrality would do to the solid!). In some sense, therefore, the longitudinal acoustic phonon is indeed such an acoustic plasmon. The ion acoustic wave in a classical plasma is similarly a manifestation of an acoustic plasmon.

This isn’t necessarily the kind of acoustic plasmon that has been so elusive to solid-state physicists, though. The original proposal and the subsequent search was conducted on systems where light electrons (or holes) would screen heavy electrons (or holes). Indeed, it was suspected that Landau damping into the particle-hole continuum was preventing the acoustic plasmon from being an observable excitation in a solid. However, there have been a few papers suggesting that the acoustic plasmon has indeed been observed at solid surfaces. Here is one paper from 2007 claiming that an acoustic plasmon exists on the surface of beryllium and here is another showing a similar phenomenon on the surface of gold.

To my knowledge, it is still an open question as to whether such a plasmon can exist in the bulk of a 3D solid. This has not stopped researchers from suggesting that electron-acoustic plasmon coupling could lead to the formation of Cooper pairs and superconductvity in the cuprates. Varma has suggested that a good place to look would be in mixed-valence compounds, where f-electron masses can get very heavy.

On the experimental side, the search continues…

A helpful picture: If one imagines light electrons and heavy holes in a compensated semimetal for instance, the in-phase motion of the electrons and holes would result in an acoustic plasmon while the out-of-phase motion would result in the gapped plasmon.

Transistors, Logic and Abstraction

A general theme of science that manifests itself in many different ways is the concept of abstraction. What this means is that one can understand something at a higher level without having to understand a buried lower level. For instance, one can understand the theory of evolution based on natural selection (higher level) without having to first comprehend quantum mechanics (lower level), even though the higher level must be consistent with the lower one.

To my mind, this idea is most aptly demonstrated with transistors, circuits and logic. Let’s start at the level of transistors and build a NAND gate in the following way:

NANDCircuit

NAND Circuit

The NAND gate has the following truth table:

NANDTruthTable

If you can’t immediately see why the transistor circuit above yields the corresponding truth table, it helps to appeal to the “water analogy”, where one imagines the current flow as water. Imagine that water is flowing from Vcc. If A and B are high, the “dams” (transistors) are open, the current will flow to ground and X will be low. If either A or B is low (closed), the water will flow to X, and X will be high.

Why did I choose the NAND circuit instead of other logic gates? It turns out that all other logic gates can be built from the NAND alone, so it makes sense to choose it as a fundamental unit.

Let’s now abstract away the circuit and draw the NAND gate like so:

NANDgate

NAND Gate

Having abstracted away the transistor circuit, we can now play with this NAND gate and build other logic gates out of it. For instance, let’s think about how to build an OR gate. Well, an OR gate is just a NOT gate applied to the two inputs of a NAND gate. Therefore, we just need to build a NOT gate. One way to do this would be:

NOTgate

NOT from NAND

Notice that whenever A is high, X is low and vice versa. Let us now abstract this circuit away and draw the NOT gate as:

 

NOTabstract

NOT Gate

And now the OR gate can be made in the following way:

ORGate

OR from NOT and NAND

 

and abstracted away to look like:

ORAbstract

OR Gate

Now, although building an OR gate from NAND gates is totally unnecessary, and it actually would just be easier to do this by working with the transistors directly, one can already start to see the power of abstracting away the underlying circuit. We can just work at higher levels, build the component we want and put the transistors back in at the end. Our understanding of what is going on is not compromised in any way and is in fact probably enhanced since we don’t have to think about the water analogy any more!

Let’s work now with an example that actually is much easier at the level of NANDs and NOTs to really demonstrate the power of this technique. Let’s make what is called a multiplexer. A multiplexer is a three input-one output circuit with the following truth table:

MultiplexorTruthTabl

Multiplexor Truth Table

Notice that in this truth table, the X serves as a selector. When X is 0, it selects B as the output (Y), whereas when X is 1, it selects A as the output. The multiplexer can be built in the following way:

MultiplexorCircuit

Multiplexer from NOT and NANDs

and is usually abstracted in the following way:

MultiplexorAbstract

Multiplexer Gate

At this level, it is no longer a simple task to come up with a transistor circuit that will operate as a multiplexer, but it is relatively straightforward at the level of NANDs and NOTs. Now, armed with the multiplexer, NAND, NOT and OR gates, we can build even more complex circuit components. In fact, doing this, one will eventually arrive at the hardware for a basic computer. Therefore, next time you’re looking at complex circuitry, know that the builders used abstraction to think about the meaning of the circuit and then put all the transistors back in later.

I’ll stop building circuits here; I think the idea I’m trying to communicate is becoming increasingly clear. We can work at a certain level, abstract it away and then work at a higher level. This is an important concept in every field of science. Abstraction occurs in every realm. This is even true in particle physics. In condensed matter physics, we use this concept everyday to think about what happens in materials, abstracting away complex electron-electron interactions into a quasi-particle using Fermi liquid theory or abstracting away the interactions between the underlying electrons in a superconductor to understand vortex lattices (pdf!).

Correlated Electrons GRC

I attended the Gordon Research Conference on correlated electron systems this past week, and it was my first attendance at one of the GRCs. I was very impressed with it and hope to return to more of these in the future.

Some observations and notes from the meeting:

1) The GRC is a closed meeting in the sense that no pictures of slides or posters are allowed to be taken at these meetings. This policy is meant to create the ‘Vegas Mentality’, i.e. ‘whatever happens at a GRC stays at a GRC’. I see the value of this framework in the sense that it results in a more free and open exchange of ideas than what I’ve seen in at other conferences. I will therefore eschew from discussing the more technical topics presented at the meeting and concentrate on some rather more sociological observations.

The Vegas mentality at this meeting makes discussions feel even more transient than usual. There is a sense in which this is excellent, in that attendees are permitted to communicate ideas that they don’t understand fully or are speculative without too much judgment from their peers. Feedback and discussions can often resolve these issues or result in suggestions on how to make certain moon-shot ideas tangible.

2) There was a healthy interaction between students, postdocs and professors at the conference, which is usually screened out at the day-to-day level at many universities. These interactions are useful, especially for the younger parties, whose usual interaction with faculty don’t extend too far beyond their advisers. This is accomplished at the conference by inviting a high proportion of early career scientists so that the older ones find it difficult to form cliques.

3) From speaking to many people at the conference, it seems like a common theme is solving the notorious problem of the coupled oscillator (or two-body problem), where both husband and wife are searching for academic positions. One of the attendees at the conference humorously encouraged me to refer to the problem as a ‘two-body opportunity’. It seems like universities are trying harder to address these issues (such as having offices dedicated to solving couples’ employment), but there were still a couple rather horrific anecdotes told on this front. The workforce demographic is changing rapidly, and universities should really be leading the way on addressing the pressing issues on this front.

4) There was a gas leak from some construction work at Mt Holyoke College, the site of the meeting. This resulted in the evacuation of the dining hall during dinner. Many grabbed their plates and proceeded to eat outside, resulting in a rather unique and memorable culinary experience.

5) SciPost is now in full-swing and is accepting articles for submission. One of the attendees was instrumental in turning the idea of an open-access online journal for physicists into reality. I have written on this blog about SciPost previously, and I am hugely in favor of the effort.

Aside: I was heartened by Brian’s recent post on creating a more open and accepting culture among physicists and recommend reading his views on this issue.

The Mystery of URu2Si2 – Experimental Dump

Heavy fermion compounds are known to exhibit a wide range of ground states encompassing ferromagnetism, anti-ferromagnetism, superconductivity, insulating and a host of others. A number of these compounds also exhibit more than one of these phases simultaneously.

There is one of these heavy fermion materials that stands out among the rest, however, and that is URu2Si2. The reason for this is that there is an unidentified phase transition that occurs in this compound at ~17.5K. What I mean by “unidentified” is that the order parameter is unknown, the elementary excitations are not understood and there is a consensus emerging that we currently may not have the experimental capability to identify this phase unambiguously. This has led researchers to refer to this phase in URu2Si2 as “hidden order”. Our inability to understand this phase has now persisted for three decades and well over 600 papers have been written on this single material. For experimentalists and theorists that love a challenge, URu2Si2 presents a rather unique and interesting one.

Let me give a quick rundown of the experimental signatures of this phase. Firstly, to convince you that there actually is a thermodynamic phase transition that happens in URu2Si2, take a look at this plot of the specific heat as a function of temperature:

In the lower image, one can see two transitions, one into the hidden order phase at 17.5K and one into the superconducting phase at ~1.5K. One can see that there is a large entropy change at the phase transition into the hidden order phase, which makes it all the more remarkable that we don’t know what it going on! I should mention that the resistivity also shows an anomaly going into the hidden order phase both along the a- and c-axis (the unit cell is tetragonal).

Furthermore, the thermal expansion coefficient, \alpha = L^{-1}(\Delta L/\Delta T), has a peak for the in-plane coefficient and a smaller dip for the c-axis coefficient at the transition temperature. This implies that the volume of the unit cell gets larger through the transition, indicating that the hidden order phase exhibits a strong coupling to the lattice degrees of freedom.

For those familiar with the other uranium-based heavy fermion compounds, one of the most natural questions to ask is whether the hidden order phase is associated with the onset of some sort of magnetism. Indeed, x-ray resonance magnetic scattering and neutron scattering experiments were carried out in the late 80s and early 90s to investigate this possibility. The structure found corresponded to one where there was a ferromagnetic arrangement in the a-b plane with antiferromagnetic coupling along the out-of-plane c-axis. However, this was not the whole story. The magnetic moments were extremely weak (0.02\mu_B per Uranium atom) and the magnetic Bragg peaks found were not resolution-limited (correlation length ~400 Angstroms). This means that order was not of the true long-range variety!

Also, rather strangely, the integrated intensity of the magnetic Bragg peak was shown to be linear as a function of temperature, saturating at ~3K (shown below). All these results seemed to imply that the magnetism in the compound was of a rather unconventional kind.

The next logical question to ask was what the inelastic magnetic spectrum looked like. Below is an image exhibiting the dispersion of the magnetic modes. Two different modes can identified, one at the magnetic Bragg peak wavevectors (e.g. (1, 0, 0)) and one at “incommensurate” positions (e.g. 1 \pm 0.4, 0, 0). The “incommensurate” excitations exhibit approximately a ~4meV gap while the gap at (1, 0, 0) is about 2meV. These excitations show up with the hidden order and are thought to be closely associated with it. They have been shown to have longitudinal character.

The penultimate thing I will mention is that if one examines the optical conductivity of URu2Si2, a gap of ~5meV in the charge spectrum is also manifest. This is shown below:

And lastly, if one pressurizes a sample up to 0.5 GPa, the URu2Si2 becomes a  full-blown large-moment antiferromagnet with a magnetic moment of approximately 0.4\mu_B per Uranium atom. The transition temperature into the Neel state is about 18K.

So let me summarize the main observations concerning the hidden order phase:

  1. Weak short-range antiferromagnetism
  2. Strong coupling to the lattice
  3. Dispersive and gapped incommensurate and commensurate magnetic excitations
  4. Gapped charge excitations
  5. Lives nearby anti-ferromagnetism
  6. Can coexist with superconductivity

I should stress that I am no expert of heavy fermion compounds, which is why this is my first real post on them, so please feel free to point out any oversights I may have made!

More information can be found in these two excellent review articles:

http://journals.aps.org/rmp/abstract/10.1103/RevModPhys.83.1301

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14786435.2014.916428