Future information technologies: Topological materials for ultrafast spintronics

Snapshots of the electronic structure of Sb acquired with femtosecond time-resolution. Note the changing spectral weight above the Fermi energy (E<sub>F</sub>).

Snapshots of the electronic structure of Sb acquired with femtosecond time-resolution. Note the changing spectral weight above the Fermi energy (EF). © HZB/Nature Communication Physics (2021)

A team led by HZB physicist Dr. Jaime Sánchez-Barriga has gained new insights into the ultrafast response of topological states of matter to femtosecond laser excitation. Using time- and spin-resolved methods at BESSY II, the physicists explored how, after optical excitation, the complex interplay in the behavior of excited electrons in the bulk and on the surface results in unusual spin dynamics. The work is an important step on the way to spintronic devices based on topological materials for ultrafast information processing.

The laws of quantum physics rule the microcosm. They determine, for example, how easily electrons move through a crystal and thus whether the material is a metal, a semiconductor or an insulator. Quantum physics may lead to exotic properties in certain materials: In so-called topological insulators, only the electrons that can occupy some specific quantum states are free to move like massless particles on the surface, while this mobility is completely absent for electrons in the bulk. What’s more, the conduction electrons in the "skin" of the material are necessarily spin polarized, and form robust, metallic surface states that could be utilized as channels in which to drive pure spin currents on femtosecond time scales (1 fs= 10-15 s).

Exploiting the spin

These properties open up exciting opportunities to develop new information technologies based on topological materials, such as ultrafast spintronics, by exploiting the spin of the electrons on their surfaces rather than the charge. In particular, optical excitation by femtosecond laser pulses in these materials represents a promising alternative to realize highly efficient, lossless transfer of spin information. Spintronic devices utilizing these properties have the potential of a superior performance, as they would allow to increase the speed of information transport up to frequencies a thousand times faster than in modern electronics.

However, many questions still need to be answered before spintronic devices can be developed. For example, the details of exactly how the bulk and surface electrons from a topological material respond to the external stimulus i.e., the laser pulse, and the degree of overlap in their collective behaviors on ultrashort time scales.

The sample: a pure Antimony crystal

A team led by HZB physicist Dr. Jaime Sánchez-Barriga has now brought new insights into such mechanisms.  The team, which has also established a Helmholtz-RSF Joint Research Group in collaboration with colleagues from Lomonosov State University, Moscow, examined single crystals of elemental antimony (Sb), previously suggested to be a topological material. "It is a good strategy to study interesting physics in a simple system, because that's where we can hope to understand the fundamental principles," Sánchez-Barriga explains. "The experimental verification of the topological property of this material required us to directly observe its electronic structure in a highly excited state with time, spin, energy and momentum resolutions, and in this way we accessed an unusual electron dynamics," adds Sánchez-Barriga.

Probing the electronic structure

The aim was to understand how fast excited electrons in the bulk and on the surface of Sb react to the external energy input, and to explore the mechanisms governing their response. “By controlling the time delay between the initial laser excitation and the second pulse that allows us to probe the electronic structure, we were able to build up a full time-resolved picture of how excited states leave and return to equilibrium on ultrafast time scales. The unique combination of time and spin-resolved capabilities also allowed us to directly probe the spin-polarization of excited states far out-of-equilibrium”, says Dr. Oliver J. Clark.

Weight gain detected

The data show a "kink" structure in transiently occupied energy-momentum dispersion of surface states, which can be interpreted as an increase in effective electron mass. The authors were able to show that this mass enhancement plays a decisive role in determining the complex interplay in the dynamical behaviors of electrons from the bulk and the surface, also depending on their spin, following the ultrafast optical excitation.

Key to control spin polarised currents

"Our research reveals which essential properties of this class of materials are the key to systematically control the relevant time scales in which lossless spin-polarised currents could be generated and manipulated," explains Sánchez-Barriga. These are important steps on the way to spintronic devices which based on topological materials possess advanced functionalities for ultrafast information processing.

arö


You might also be interested in

  • Unconventional piezoelectricity in ferroelectric hafnia
    Science Highlight
    26.02.2024
    Unconventional piezoelectricity in ferroelectric hafnia
    Hafnium oxide thin films are a fascinating class of materials with robust ferroelectric properties in the nanometre range. While their ferroelectric behaviour is extensively studied, results on piezoelectric effects have so far remained mysterious. A new study now shows that the piezoelectricity in ferroelectric Hf0.5Zr0.5O2 thin films can be dynamically changed by electric field cycling. Another ground-breaking result is a possible occurrence of an intrinsic non-piezoelectric ferroelectric compound. These unconventional features in hafnia offer new options for use in microelectronics and information technology.
  • 14 parameters in one go: New instrument for optoelectronics
    Science Highlight
    21.02.2024
    14 parameters in one go: New instrument for optoelectronics
    An HZB physicist has developed a new method for the comprehensive characterisation of semiconductors in a single measurement. The "Constant Light-Induced Magneto-Transport (CLIMAT)" is based on the Hall effect and allows to record 14 different parameters of transport properties of negative and positive charge carriers. The method was tested now on twelve different semiconductor materials and will save valuable time in assessing new materials for optoelectronic applications such as solar cells.
  • Sodium-ion batteries: How doping works
    Science Highlight
    20.02.2024
    Sodium-ion batteries: How doping works
    Sodium-ion batteries still have a number of weaknesses that could be remedied by optimising the battery materials. One possibility is to dope the cathode material with foreign elements. A team from HZB and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin has now investigated the effects of doping with Scandium and Magnesium. The scientists collected data at the X-ray sources BESSY II, PETRA III, and SOLARIS to get a complete picture and uncovered two competing mechanisms that determine the stability of the cathodes.