Scientists at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory's Linac Coherent Light Source used carefully timed pairs of laser pulses to capture ultrafast snapshots of light-driven superconductivity.
A new study pins down a major factor behind the appearance of superconductivity – the ability to conduct electricity with 100 percent efficiency – in a promising copper-oxide material. Scientists used carefully timed pairs of laser pulses at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) to trigger superconductivity in the material and immediately take X-ray snapshots of its atomic and electronic behavior as superconductivity emerged.
They discovered that so-called “charge stripes” of increased electrical charge melted away as superconductivity appeared. Further, the results help rule out the theory that shifts in the material’s atomic lattice hinder the onset of superconductivity.
Armed with this new understanding, scientists may be able to develop new techniques to eliminate these charge stripes and help pave the way for room-temperature superconductivity, often considered the holy grail of condensed matter physics. The demonstrated ability to rapidly switch between the insulating and superconducting states could also prove useful in advanced electronics and computation.
The results, from a collaboration led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter in Germany and the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC and Brookhaven national laboratories, were published online April 16, 2014, in the journal Physical Review Letters.
“The very short timescales and the need for high spatial resolution made this experiment extraordinarily challenging,” said co-author Michael Först, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute. “Now, using femtosecond X-ray pulses, we found a way to capture the quadrillionths-of-a-second dynamics of the charges and the crystal lattice. We’ve broken new ground in understanding light-induced superconductivity.”
Josh Turner, an LCLS staff scientist, said, “This represents a very important result in the field of superconductivity using LCLS. It demonstrates how we can unravel different types of complex mechanisms in superconductivity that have, up until now, been inseparable.”
He added, “To make this measurement, we had to push the limits of our current capabilities. We had to measure a very weak, barely detectable signal with state-of-the-art detectors, and we had to tune the number of X-rays in each laser pulse to see the signal from the stripes without destroying the sample.”
Ripples in Quantum Sand: The compound used in this study was a layered material consisting of lanthanum, barium, copper, and oxygen grown at Brookhaven Lab by physicist Genda Gu. Each copper oxide layer contained the crucial charge stripes.
“Imagine these stripes as ripples frozen in the sand,” said John Hill, a Brookhaven Lab physicist and coauthor on the study. “Each layer has all the ripples going in one direction, but in the neighboring layers they run crosswise. From above, this looks like strings in a pile of tennis racquets. We believe that this pattern prevents each layer from talking to the next, thus frustrating superconductivity.”