40-year controversy in solid-state physics resolved

An international team at BESSY II headed by Prof. Oliver Rader has shown that the puzzling properties of samarium hexaboride do not stem from the material being a topological insulator, as it had been proposed to be.

Theoretical and initial experimental work had previously indicated that this material, which becomes a Kondo insulator at very low temperatures, also possessed the properties of a topological insulator. The team has now published a compelling alternative explanation in Nature Communications, however.

Samarium hexaboride is a dark solid with metallic properties at room temperature. It hosts Samarium, an element having several electrons confined to localized f orbitals in which they interact strongly with one another. The lower the temperature, the more apparent these interactions become. SmB6 becomes what is known as a Kondo insulator, named after Jun Kondo who was first able to explain this quantum effect.

In spite of Kondo-Effect: some conductivity remains

About forty years ago, physicists observed that SmB6 still retained remnant conductivity at temperatures below 4 kelvin, the cause of which had remained unclear until today. After the discovery of the topological-insulator class of materials around 12 years ago, hypotheses grew insistent that SmB6 could be a topological insulator as well as being Kondo insulator, which might explain the conductivity anomaly at a very fundamental level, since this causes particular conductive states at the surface. Initial experiments actually pointed toward this.

>Read more on the Bessy II website

Image: Electrons with differing energies are emitted along various crystal axes in the interior of the sample as well as from the surface. These can be measured with the angular-resolved photoemission station (ARPES) at BESSY II. Left image shows the sample temperature at 25 K, right at only 1 K. The energy distribution of the conducting and valence band electrons can be derived from these data. The surface remains conductive at very low temperature (1 K).
Credit: Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin