HZB-Physicists at BESSY II have investigated a class of materials that exhibit characteristics of topological insulators.
During these studies they discovered a transition between two different topological phases, one of which is ferroelectric, meaning a phase in the material that exhibits spontaneous electric polarisation and can be reversed by an external electric field. This could also lead to new applications such as switching between differing conductivities.
The HZB researchers studied crystalline semiconductor films made of a lead, tin, and selenium alloy (PbSnSe) that were doped additionally with tiny amounts of the element bismuth. These semiconductors belong to the new class of materials called topological insulators, materials that conduct very well at their surfaces while behaving as insulators internally. Doping with 1-2 per cent bismuth has enabled them to observe a new topological phase transition now. The sample changes to a particular topological phase that also possesses the property of ferroelectricity. This means that an external electric field distorts the crystal lattice, whereas conversely, mechanical forces on the lattice can create electric fields.
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Image: The Bismut doping is enhanced from 0% (left) to 2.2% (right). Measurements at BESSY II show that this leads to increased bandgaps. Credit: HZB