Washington, July 26 : In a breakthrough study, researchers from Princeton University have found a new way electrons behave in materials, thus opening up avenues for developing new kinds of electronic devices.
The team led by N. Phuan Ong, a professor of physics at Princeton have discovered that electrons in common element bismuth, when exposed to powerful magnetic field at ultra-low temperatures, exhibit an unusual pattern of behaviour- something like a dance.
The study showed the electrons in the magnetized, supercold sample simultaneously assumed the identity of all three classes of electrons, following a strict choreography that could only stem from the strange rules of quantum physics.
Quantum mechanics is the area of physics that governs the behaviour of objects in the microscopic world.
The team documented the first "phase transition", a term used to describe an abrupt change in the behaviour of a material, ever observed in a Group V element, one of the categories in chemistry's periodic table.
"If you can imagine, it's as if we were looking at passengers scrambling through Grand Central Station in New York, watching them run in different directions. All of a sudden, the whistle blows and we see them run to the same train. This is a simple example of a sudden transition to collective behavior," said Ong.
Ong calls it a "manifestation of quantum mechanics."
It is already known that, in the complicated environment of a crystalline solid like bismuth, its electrons move more rapidly than they do in conventional materials.
Although the maximum speed of electrons in bismuth is small compared with photons moving at the speed of light, the electrons mimic accurately the behaviour of elementary particles accelerated to very high speeds. In bismuth, this "relativistic" property makes them likely candidates for the quantum behaviour the scientists observed.
"This is exciting because this was predicted, but never shown before, and it may eventually lead to new paradigms in computing and electronics," said Thomas Rieker, program director for materials research centres at the National Science Foundation.
"In the quest to develop ever smaller and faster transistors, physicists and engineers are attempting to harness the quantum behavior of electrons," said Ong.
"Research in bismuth and another material, graphene, may uncover further new results that will expand the tool kit of quantum researchers."
The study appears in July 25, issue of the journal Science.