Graphene + magnetic field creates exotic new quantum electronic states

Could make graphene suitable for quantum computing for high-priority computational tasks
December 26, 2013

On a piece of graphene (the dark horizontal surface with a hexagonal pattern of carbon atoms), in a strong magnetic field, electrons can move only along the edges, and are blocked from moving in the interior. In addition, only electrons with one direction of spin can move in only one direction along the edges (indicated by the white-on-blue arrows), while electrons with the opposite spin are blocked (as shown by the white-on-red arrows). (Credit: A. F. Young et al.)

MIT research has found additional potential for graphene that could make it suitable for exotic uses such as quantum computing.

Under an extremely powerful magnetic field and at extremely low temperature, the researchers found, graphene can effectively filter electrons according to the direction of their spin, something that cannot be done by any conventional electronic system.

The trick:

  • Turn on a powerful magnetic field perpendicular to the graphene flake. That causes current to flows only along the edge, and flows only in one direction — clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on the orientation of the magnetic field — in a phenomenon known as the quantum Hall effect.
  • Turn on a second magnetic field — this time in the same plane as the graphene flake. Graphene’s behavior changes yet again: electrons can now move in either direction around the conducting edge; electrons that have one kind of spin move clockwise while those with the opposite spin move counterclockwise.

Making circuits and transistors

“We created an unusual kind of conductor along the edge, virtually a one-dimensional wire.” says Andrea Young, a Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s physics department and the paper’s lead author,  The segregation of electrons according to spin is “a normal feature of topological insulators,” he says, “but graphene is not normally a topological insulator. We’re getting the same effect in a very different material system.”

What’s more, by varying the magnetic field, “we can turn these edge states on and off,” Young says. That switching capability means that, in principle, “we can make circuits and transistors out of these,” he says, which has not been realized before in conventional topological insulators.

There is another benefit of this spin selectivity, Young says: It prevents a phenomenon called “backscattering,” which could disrupt the motion of the electrons. As a result, imperfections that would ordinarily ruin the electronic properties of the material have little effect. “Even if the edges are ‘dirty,’ electrons are transmitted along this edge nearly perfectly,” he says.

A graphene-based quantum computer

Professor Pablo Jarillo-Herrero , the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT, says the behavior seen in these graphene flakes was predicted, but never seen before. This work, he says, is the first time such spin-selective behavior has been demonstrated in a single sheet of graphene, and also the first time anyone has demonstrated the ability “to transition between these two regimes.”

That could ultimately lead to a novel way of making a kind of quantum computer, Jarillo-Herrero says, something that researchers have tried to do, without success, for decades. But because of the extreme conditions required, Young says, “this would be a very specialized machine” used only for high-priority computational tasks, such as in national laboratories.

Ray Ashoori, a professor of physics, points out that the newly discovered edge states have a number of surprising properties. For example, although gold is an exceptionally good electrical conductor, when dabs of gold are added to the edge of the graphene flakes, they cause the electrical resistance to increase. The gold dabs allow the electrons to backscatter into the oppositely traveling state by mixing the electron spins; the more gold is added, the more the resistance goes up.

This research represents “a new direction” in topological insulators, Young says. “We don’t really know what it might lead to, but it opens our thinking about the kind of electrical devices we can make.”

The experiments required the use of a magnetic field with a strength of 35 tesla — “about 10 times more than in an MRI machine,” Jarillo-Herrero says — and a temperature of just 0.3 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. However, the team is already pursuing ways of observing a similar effect at magnetic fields of just one tesla and at higher temperatures.

Philip Kim, a professor of physics at Columbia University who was not involved in this work, says, “The authors here have beautifully demonstrated excellent quantization of the conductance,” as predicted by theory. He adds, “This is very nice work that may connect topological insulator physics to the physics of graphene with interactions. This work is a good example how the two most popular topics in condensed matter physics are connected each other.”

The research is published this week in the journal Nature.

The team also included researchers at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan. The work was supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, and used facilities at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Florida.

Abstract of Nature paper

Low-dimensional electronic systems have traditionally been obtained by electrostatically confining electrons, either in heterostructures or in intrinsically nanoscale materials such as single molecules, nanowires and graphene. Recently, a new method has emerged with the recognition that symmetry-protected topological (SPT) phases, which occur in systems with an energy gap to quasiparticle excitations (such as insulators or superconductors), can host robust surface states that remain gapless as long as the relevant global symmetry remains unbroken. The nature of the charge carriers in SPT surface states is intimately tied to the symmetry of the bulk, resulting in one- and two-dimensional electronic systems with novel properties. For example, time reversal symmetry endows the massless charge carriers on the surface of a three-dimensional topological insulator with helicity, fixing the orientation of their spin relative to their momentum. Weakly breaking this symmetry generates a gap on the surface, resulting in charge carriers with finite effective mass and exotic spin textures. Analogous manipulations have yet to be demonstrated in two-dimensional topological insulators, where the primary example of a SPT phase is the quantum spin Hall state. Here we demonstrate experimentally that charge-neutral monolayer graphene has a quantum spin Hall state when it is subjected to a very large magnetic field angled with respect to the graphene plane. In contrast to time-reversal-symmetric systems, this state is protected by a symmetry of planar spin rotations that emerges as electron spins in a half-filled Landau level are polarized by the large magnetic field. The properties of the resulting helical edge states can be modulated by balancing the applied field against an intrinsic antiferromagnetic instability, which tends to spontaneously break the spin-rotation symmetry. In the resulting canted antiferromagnetic state, we observe transport signatures of gapped edge states, which constitute a new kind of one-dimensional electronic system with a tunable bandgap and an associated spin texture.