Breaking the link between a quantum material’s spin and orbital states

The advance opens a path toward a new generation of logic and memory devices that could be 10,000 times faster than today’s.

In designing electronic devices, scientists look for ways to manipulate and control three basic properties of electrons: their charge; their spin states, which give rise to magnetism; and the shapes of the fuzzy clouds they form around the nuclei of atoms, which are known as orbitals.

Until now, electron spins and orbitals were thought to go hand in hand in a class of materials that’s the cornerstone of modern information technology; you couldn’t quickly change one  without changing the other. But a study at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory shows that a pulse of laser light can dramatically change the spin state of one important class of materials while leaving its orbital state intact.

>Read more on the LCLS at SLAC website

Image: These balloon-and-disk shapes represent an electron orbital – a fuzzy electron cloud around an atom’s nucleus – in two different orientations. Scientists hope to someday use variations in the orientations of orbitals as the 0s and 1s needed to make computations and store information in computer memories, a system known as orbitronics. A SLAC study shows it’s possible to separate these orbital orientations from electron spin patterns, a key step for independently controlling them in a class of materials that’s the cornerstone of modern information technology.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory