The new material - a crystal called a topological superconductor - has two electronic identities at once. At very low temperatures, the interior of the crystal behaves like a normal superconductor, able to conduct electricity with zero resistance. At the same time, the surface is metallic, able to carry a current, albeit with some resistance.
This is in direct contrast to most existing materials that are classified as electronic states of matter, including metals, insulators and conventional superconductors, which are consistent in how they do, or don't, conduct electricity. For example, every single atom of every single copper wire is able to carry a current, which dissipates a bit as it travels. Similarly, all the molecules in normal superconductors conduct electricity without resistance when the material is placed at the appropriate temperature.
"The known states of electronic matter are insulators, metals, magnets, semiconductors and superconductors, and each of them has brought us new technology," said M. Zahid Hasan, an associate professor of physics at Princeton who led the research team. "Topological superconductors are superconducting everywhere but on the surface, where they are metallic; this leads to many possibilities for applications."
According to Hasan, one of the most exciting potential uses for the material would be in energy-efficient quantum computers that would have the ability to identify errors in calculation as they occur and resist them during processing. The successful development of such machines is thought to hinge on catching and manipulating elusive particles called Majorana fermions, which were first predicted more than 70 years ago but never before observed, Hasan explained.
The split electronic personality of the new superconductors with unusual surface properties, when placed in contact with a special kind of insulator, may enable scientists to coax the electrons whizzing about on the surface to become Majorana fermions, he added.
"These highly unusual superconductors are the most ideal nurseries to create and manipulate Majorana fermions, which could be used to do quantum computing in a fault-resistant way " said L. Andrew Wray, the first author of the paper. "And because the particles would exist on a superconductor, it could be possible to manipulate them in low power-consumption devices that are not only 'green,' but also immune to the overheating problems that befall current silicon-based electronics."
The significant caveat is that any potential application could be several decades in development. "Of course, it takes time to go from new physics to new technology - usually 20 to 30 years, as was the case with semiconductors," Hasan said.
COMPAMED.de; Source: Princeton University