For Immediate Release
This is very strange, because no metal is supposed to be able to
do this, said Walter
de Heer, a professor in the School
of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-author of
the paper published on the topic in Science. These clusters
become spontaneously polarized, with electrons moving to one side of the
cluster for no apparent reason. One side of each cluster becomes negatively-charged,
and the other side becomes positively-charged. The clusters lock into
that behavior and stay that way.
This ferroelectric phenomenon has so far been observed in clusters of
niobium, vanadium and tantalum three transition metals that in
bulk form become superconducting at about the same temperature that the
researchers observe formation of dipoles in the tiny clusters. De Heer
believes this discovery will open up a new field of research and
provide clues to the mystery of superconductivity.
In bulk metals -- and even in niobium clusters at room temperature --
electrical charge is normally distributed equally throughout the sample
unless an electric field is applied. But in the clusters of up to 200
niobium atoms created by de Heer and collaborators Ramiro Moro, Xiaoshan
Xu and Shuangye Yin, that changes when the particles are cooled to less
than 20 degrees Kelvin.
The Georgia Tech researchers discovered this spontaneous symmetry
breaking while searching for signs of superconductivity in the nanometer-scale
clusters. It was completely unexpected and de Heer admits he has
no explanation for it.
When this happens, these particles that are made out of metal atoms
no longer behave as if they were metallic, he said. Something
changes the particles from a metal into something else.
For the smallest clusters, the strength of the dipole effect varies dramatically
according to size. Clusters composed of 14 atoms display strong effects,
while those made up of 15 atoms show little effect. Above 30 atoms, clusters
with even numbers of atoms display stronger dipole effects than clusters
with odd numbers of atoms.
Structure matters greatly to this process, de Heer said.
A small change can affect the position of the phase transition rather
profoundly, and the exact arrangement of atoms really does matter to these
He attributes the size sensitivity to the quantum size regime, which
is related to restrictions on how electrons can move in very small clusters.
De Heer sees strong circumstantial evidence, but no solid
proof, that the phenomenon is connected to superconductivity in these
Our assumption is that superconductivity in the bulk materials
has something to do with the spontaneous production of dipole in the small
particles, he said. At this point, it is circumstantial evidence
the same materials and the same temperature regime, and the odd
phase transitions occurring in both. By studying several different metals,
we found that those that are superconducting in bulk have this effect,
and those that are not superconducting do not have it. That strengthens
our belief that this is connected to superconductivity in some way that
we dont yet understand.
To produce and study the tiny clusters, the researchers use a custom-built
apparatus that includes a laser, large vacuum chamber, liquid helium and
a specially designed detector able to count and characterize several million
particles per hour.
First, a laser beam is aimed at a niobium rod held within the vacuum
chamber. Pulses from the laser vaporize the niobium, creating a cloud
of metallic vapor. A stream of very cold helium gas is then injected into
the chamber, causing the niobium gas to condense into particles of varying
sizes. Under pressure from the ultra-cold helium, the particles exit through
a small hole in the chambers wall, creating a one millimeter-wide
jet of particles that passes between two metal plates before hitting the
At intervals one minute apart, the metal plates are energized with 15,000
volts, creating a strong electrical field. The field interacts with the
polarized niobium nanoclusters, causing them to be deflected away from
the detector. Unpolarized clusters remain in the beam and are counted
by the detector
By comparing detector readings while the plates are energized against
the readings when no field is applied, the researchers learn which clusters
carry the dipole. The continuous production of particles allows de Heers
research team to gather data on millions of particles during each experiment.
By varying the temperature and voltage, they study the impact of these
changes on the effect.
So far, they have studied in detail clusters of up to 200 atoms, though
de Heer believes the effect should continue in larger clusters, perhaps
up to 500 atoms or as many as 1,000.
This is just the beginning of what will ultimately be a very exciting story, he said. We certainly have a lot of work to do.
The research has been sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
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