Scientists have announced the first observation of a dynamic vortex Mott transition in a superconductor. Image: Valerii Vinokur, Argonne National Laboratory/Science.
Scientists have announced the first observation of a dynamic vortex Mott transition in a superconductor. Image: Valerii Vinokur, Argonne National Laboratory/Science.

An international team of researchers, including from the MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, has announced the first observation of a dynamic Mott transition in a superconductor.

The discovery, which was reported in Science, experimentally connects the worlds of classical and quantum mechanics, and illuminates the mysterious nature of the Mott transition. It could also shed light on non-equilibrium physics, which is poorly understood but governs most real-world processes. In addition, the finding may represent a step towards developing more efficient electronics based on the Mott transition.

Since the foundations of quantum mechanics were laid in the early part of the 20th century, scientists have been trying to reconcile it with the rules of classical or Newtonian physics. Physicists have made strides in linking the two approaches, but experiments that connect the two are still few and far between: physics phenomena are usually classified as either quantum or classical, but not both.

One system that unites the two is found in superconductors, certain materials that conduct electricity perfectly when cooled to very low temperatures. Magnetic fields penetrate the superconducting material in the form of tiny filaments called vortices that control its electronic and magnetic properties. Because these vortices display both classical and quantum properties, the researchers decided to use them to investigate one of the most enigmatic phenomena of modern condensed matter physics: the Mott insulator-to-metal transition.

The Mott transition occurs in certain materials that according to quantum mechanics should be metals, but are normally insulators. A complex phenomenon controlled by the interactions of many quantum particles, the Mott transition remains mysterious – even whether it's a classical or quantum phenomenon is not quite clear. Moreover, scientists have never directly observed a dynamic Mott transition, in which a phase transition from an insulating to a metallic state is induced by driving an electrical current through the system; the disorder inherent in real systems tends to disguise Mott properties.

So researchers at the University of Twente built a system containing 90,000 superconducting niobium nano-sized islands on top of a gold film. In this configuration, the vortices find it energetically easiest to settle into energy dimples, forming an arrangement like an egg crate. This makes the material act like a Mott insulator, since the vortices won't move if the applied electric current is small.

When the researchers applied a large enough electric current, however, they witnessed a dynamic Mott transition as the system flipped to become a conducting metal. The properties of the material had changed as the current pushed it out of equilibrium.

The vortex system behaved in exactly the same way as an electronic Mott transition driven by temperature, say Valerii Vinokur, an Argonne Distinguished Fellow and corresponding author on the study. He and study co-author Tatyana Baturina, then at Argonne, analyzed the data and recognized the Mott behavior. "This experimentally materializes the correspondence between quantum and classical physics," Vinokur said.

"We can controllably induce a phase transition between a state of locked vortices to itinerant vortices by applying an electric current to the system," said Hans Hilgenkamp, head of the University of Twente research group. "Studying these phase transitions in our artificial systems is interesting in its own right, but may also provide further insight into the electronic transitions in real materials."

The system could also provide scientists with insight into two categories of physics that have been hard to understand: many-body systems and out-of-equilibrium systems.

"This is a classical system that is easy to experiment with and provides what looks like access to very complicated many-body systems," said Vinokur. "It looks a bit like magic." As the name implies, many-body problems involve a large number of particles interacting with each other, and are very difficult to model or understand.

"Furthermore, this system will be key to building a general understanding of out-of-equilibrium physics, which would be a major breakthrough in physics," Vinokur said. Equilibrium systems – where there's no energy moving around – are now understood quite well. But nearly everything in the real world involves energy flow, from photosynthesis to digestion to tropical cyclones, and we don't yet have the physics to describe it well. Scientists think a better understanding could lead to huge improvements in energy capture, batteries and energy storage, electronics and more.

As scientists seek to make electronics faster and smaller, Mott systems also offer a possible alternative to the silicon transistor. Since they can be flipped between conducting and insulating with small changes in voltage, they may be able to encode ones and zeroes at smaller scales and higher accuracy than silicon transistors.

“Initially, we were studying the structures for completely different reasons, namely to investigate the effects of inhomogeneities on superconductivity," Hilgenkamp said. "After discussing with Valerii Vinokur at Argonne, we looked more specifically into our data and were quite amazed to see that it revealed so nicely the details of the transition between the state of locked and moving vortices. There are many ideas for follow up studies, and we look forward to our continued collaboration."

This story is adapted from material from the Argonne National Laboratory, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.