Category Archives: Review

Strontium Titanate – A Historical Tour

Like most ugly haircuts, materials tend to go in and out of style over time. Strontium titanate (SrTiO3), commonly referred to as STO, has, since its discovery, been somewhat timeless. And this is not just because it is often used as a substitute for diamonds. What I mean is that studying STO rarely seems to go out of style and the material always appears to have some surprises in store.

STO was first synthesized in the 1950s, before it was discovered naturally in Siberia. It didn’t take long for research on this material to take off. One of the first surprising results that STO had in store was that it became superconducting when reduced (electron-doped). This is not remarkable in and of itself, but this study and other follow-up ones showed that superconductivity can occur with a carrier density of only ~5\times 10^{17} cm^{-3}.

This is surprising in light of BCS theory, where the Fermi energy is assumed to be much greater than the Debye frequency — which is clearly not the case here. There have been claims in the literature suggesting that the superconductivity may be plasmon-induced, since the plasma frequency is in the phonon energy regime. L. Gorkov recently put a paper up on the arXiv discussing the mechanism problem in STO.

Soon after the initial work on superconductivity in doped STO, Shirane, Yamada and others began studying pure STO in light of the predicted “soft mode” theory of structural phase transitions put forth by W. Cochran and others. Because of an anti-ferroelectric structural phase transition at ~110K (depicted below), they we able to observe a corresponding soft phonon associated with this transition at the Brillouin zone boundary (shown below, taken from this paper). These results had vast implications for how we understand structural phase transitions today, when it is almost always assumed that a phonon softens at the transition temperature through a continuous structural phase transition.

Many materials similar to STO, such as BaTiO3 and PbTiO3, which also have a perovskite crystal structure motif, undergo a phase transition to a ferroelectric state at low (or not so low) temperatures. The transition to the ferroelectric state is accompanied by a diverging dielectric constant (and dielectric susceptibility) much in the way that the magnetic susceptibility diverges in the transition from a paramagnetic to a ferromagnetic state. In 1978, Muller (of Bednorz and Muller fame) and Burkard reported that at low temperature, the dielectric constant begins its ascent towards divergence, but then saturates at around 4K (the data is shown in the top panel below). Ferroelectricity is associated with a zone-center softening of a transverse phonon, and in the case of STO, this process begins, but doesn’t quite get there, as shown schematically in the image below (and you can see this in the data by Shirane and Yamada above as well).


Taken from Wikipedia

The saturation of the large dielectric constant and the not-quite-softening of the zone center phonon has led authors to refer to STO as a quantum paraelectric (i.e. because of the zero-point motion of the transverse optical zone-center phonon, the material doesn’t gain enough energy to undergo the ferroelectric transition). As recently as 2004, however, it was reported that one can induce ferroelectricity in STO films at room temperature by straining the film.

In recent times, STO has found itself as a common substrate material due to processes that can make it atomically flat. While this may not sound so exciting, this has had vast implications for the physics of thin films and interfaces. Firstly, this property has enabled researchers to grow high-quality thin films of cuprate superconductors using molecular beam epitaxy, which was a big challenge in the 1990’s. And even more recently, this has led to the discovery of a two-dimensional electron gas, superconductivity and ferromagnetism at the LAO/STO interface, a startling finding due to the fact that both materials are electrically insulating. Also alarmingly, when FeSe (a superconductor at around 7K) is grown as a monolayer film on STO, its transition temperature is boosted to around 100K (though the precise transition temperature in subsequent experiments is disputed but still high!). This has led to the idea that the FeSe somehow “borrows the pairing glue” from the underlying substrate.

STO is a gem of a material in many ways. I doubt that we are done with its surprises.

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!)):


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.


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:


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:


NAND Circuit

The NAND gate has the following truth table:


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:



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:



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:



NOT Gate

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


OR from NOT and NAND


and abstracted away to look like:


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:


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:


Multiplexer from NOT and NANDs

and is usually abstracted in the following way:


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.