Disorder brings out quantum physical talents

Quantum effects are most noticeable at extremely low temperatures, which limits their usefulness for technical applications. Thin films of MnSb2Te4, however, show new talents due to a small excess of manganese. Apparently, the resulting disorder provides spectacular properties: The material proves to be a topological insulator and is ferromagnetic up to comparatively high temperatures of 50 Kelvin, measurements at BESSY II show.  This makes this class of material suitable for quantum bits, but also for spintronics in general or applications in high-precision metrology.

Quantum effects such as the anomalous quantum Hall effect enable sensors of highest sensitivity, are the basis for spintronic components in future information technologies and also for qubits in quantum computers of the future. However, as a rule, the quantum effects relevant for this only show up clearly enough to make use of them at very low temperatures near absolute zero and in special material systems.

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Image: The Dirac cone is typical for topological insulators and is practically unchanged on all 6 images (ARPES measurements at BESSY II). The blue arrow additionally shows the valence electrons in the volume. The synchrotron light probes both and can thus distinguish the Dirac cone at the surface (electrically conducting) from the three-dimensional volume (insulating).

Credit: © HZB

Review of X-ray scattering methods with synchrotron radiation

Synchrotron light sources provide brilliant light with a focus on the X-ray region and have enormously expanded the possibilities for characterising materials. In the Reviews of Modern Physics, an international team now gives an overview of elastic and inelastic X-ray scattering processes, explains the theoretical background and sheds light on what insights these methods provide in physics, chemistry as well as bio- and energy related themes.

“X-ray scattering can be used to investigate and resolve a wide variety of issues from the properties and excitations of fuctional solids, to homogeneous and heterogeneous chemical processes and reactions or even the proton pathway during the splitting of water,” explains Prof. Dr. Alexander Föhlisch, who heads the Institute Methods and Instrumentation for Research with Synchrotron Radiation at HZB.

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Image: Resonant X-ray excitation (purple) core excites the oxygen atom within a H2O molecule. This causes ultrafast proton dynamics. The electronic ground state potential surface (bottom) and the bond dynamics is captured by distinct spectral features in resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (right).

Credit: © Martin Künsting /HZB

Green hydrogen: Why do certain catalysts improve in operation?

Crystalline cobalt arsenide is a catalyst that generates oxygen during electrolytic water splitting in the production of hydrogen. The material is considered to be a model system for an important group of catalysts whose performance increases under certain conditions in the course of electrolysis. Now a HZB-team headed by Marcel Risch has observed at BESSY II how two simultaneous mechanisms are responsible for this. The catalytic activity of the individual catalysis centres decreases in the course of electrolysis, but at the same time the morphology of the catalyst layer also changes. Under favourable conditions, considerably more catalysis centres come into contact with the electrolyte as a result, so that the overall performance of the catalyst increases.

As a rule, most catalyst materials deteriorate during repeated catalytic cycles – they age. But there are also compounds that increase their performance over the course of catalysis. One example is the mineral erythrite, a mineral compound comprising cobalt and arsenic oxides with a molecular formula of (Co3(AsO4)2∙8H2O). The mineral stands out because of its purple colour. Erythrite lends itself to accelerating oxygen generation at the anode during electrolytic splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

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Image: Schematic of the electrochemical restructuring of erythrite. The fine needle-like structure melts during the conversion from a crystalline material to an amorphous one, which is porous like a Swiss cheese.

Credit: © HZB

When vibrations increase on cooling: Anti-freezing observed

An international team has observed an amazing phenomenon in a nickel oxide material during cooling: Instead of freezing, certain fluctuations actually increase as the temperature drops. Nickel oxide is a model system that is structurally similar to high-temperature superconductors. The experiment, which was carried out at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) in California, shows once again that the behaviour of this class of materials still holds surprises.

In virtually all matter, lower temperatures mean less movement of its microscopic components. The less heat energy is available, the less often atoms change their location or magnetic moments their direction: they freeze. An international team led by scientists from HZB and DESY has now observed for the first time the opposite behaviour in a nickel oxide material closely related to high-temperature superconductors. Fluctuations in this nickelate do not freeze on cooling, but become faster.

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Image: The development of this speckle pattern over time reveals microsocopic fluctuations in the material.

Credit: © 10.1103/PhysRevLett.127.057001

Water as a metal

Under normal conditions, pure water is an almost perfect insulator. Water only develops metallic properties under extreme pressure, such as exists deep inside of large planets. Now, an international collaboration has used a completely different approach to produce metallic water and documented the phase transition at BESSY II. The study is published now in Nature.

Every child knows that water conducts electricity – but this refers to “normal” everyday water that contains salts. Pure, distilled water, on the other hand, is an almost perfect insulator. It consists of H2O molecules that are loosely linked to one another via hydrogen bonds. The valence electrons remain bound and are not mobile. To create a conduction band with freely moving electrons, water would have to be pressurised to such an extent that the orbitals of the outer electrons overlap. However, a calculation shows that this pressure is only present in the core of large planets such as Jupiter.

Providing electrons

An international collaboration of 15 scientists from eleven research institutions has now used a completely different approach to produce a aqueous solution with metallic properties for the first time and documented this phase transition at BESSY II. To do this, they experimented with alkali metals, which release their outer electron very easily.

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Image: The picture on the top left shows an NaK drop in a vacuum without water vapour. The other pictures show the development of this drop over time when water vapour is present. Thus, a gold-coloured layer of metallic water forms first, followed by white spots of alkali hydroxide. After about 10 seconds, the drop falls.

Credit: © HZB/Nature

Universal mechanism of regulation in plant cells discovered

In pioneering work, a German-Japanese research team at BESSY II has been able to determine the 3D structure of a metalloprotein that plays an important role as a catalyst in all plant cells. This involves the DYW deaminase domain of what is referred to as the RNA editosome. The DYW domain alters messenger RNA nucleotides in chloroplasts and mitochondria and contains a zinc ion whose activity is controlled by a very unusual mechanism. The team has now been able to describe this mechanism in detail for the first time. Their study, published in Nature Catalysis, is considered a breakthrough in the field of plant molecular biology and has far-reaching implications for bioengineering.

All plant cells obtain their energy mainly from two organelles they contain – chloroplasts (responsible for photosynthesis) and mitochondria (responsible for the biochemical cycle of respiration that converts sugars into energy). However, a large number of a plant cell’s genes in its mitochondria and chloroplasts can develop defects, jeopardising their function. Nevertheless, plant cells evolved an amazing tool called the RNA editosome (a large protein complex) to repair these kinds of errors. It can modify defective messenger RNA that result from  defective DNA by transforming (deamination) of certain mRNA nucleotides.

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Image: Around the catalytic centre is a group of molecules, the gating domain, which can occupy two different positions.

Credit: © M. Künsting / HZB

Perovskite Solar Cells: Insights into early stages of structure formation

Using small-angle scattering at the PTB X-ray beamline of BESSY II, an HZB team was able to experimentally investigate the colloidal chemistry of perovskite precursor solutions used for solar cell production. The results contribute to the targeted and systematic optimization of the manufacturing process and quality of these exciting semiconductor materials.

Halide perovskite semiconductors are inexpensive, versatile, and high-performance materials used in solar cells as well as optoelectronic devices. The crystalline perovskite thin films required for this purpose are prepared at low temperature from solution: While the solvent evaporates during an annealing step, highly coordinated iodoplumbates interact and subsequently form the polycrystalline thin film. The quality of the thin film ultimately determines the performance of the semiconductor material. Up to now, it has not been possible to achieve a comprehensive impression of the role of the colloidal chemistry in the precursor that is considered to be directional for crystallinity and the further processing.

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Image: Using Small-Angle Scattering the early stages of structure formation in precursor solutions of perovskite solar cells have been explored.

Credit: Image: © M. Flatken/HZB

New insights into switchable MOF structures at the MX beamlines

Metal-organic framework compounds (MOFs) are widely used in gas storage, material separation, sensor technology or catalysis. A team led by Prof. Dr. Stefan Kaskel, TU Dresden, has now investigated a special class of these MOFs at the MX beamlines of BESSY II. These are “switchable” MOFs that can react to external stimuli. Their analysis shows how the behaviour of the material is related to transitions between ordered and disordered phases. The results have now been published in Nature Chemistry.

Metal-organic framework compounds (MOFs) consist of inorganic and organic groups and are characterised by a large number of pores into which other molecules can be incorporated. MOFs are therefore interesting for many applications, for example for the storage of gases, but also for substance separation, sensor technology or catalysis. Some of these MOF structures react to different guest molecules by changing their structures. They are thus considered switchable.

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Image: View into a MOF crystal exemplified by DUT-8. The massive pores are clearly discernible.

Credit: © TU Dresden

Direct observation of the ad- and desorption of guest atoms into a mesoporous host

Battery electrodes, storage devices for gases, and some catalyst materials have tiny functional pores that can accommodate atoms, ions, and molecules. How these guest atoms are absorbed into or released from the pores is crucial to understanding the porous materials’ functionality. However, usually these processes can only be observed indirectly. A team from the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin (HZB) has employed two experimental approaches using the ASAXS instrument at the PTB X-ray beamline of the HZB BESSY II synchrotron to directly observe the adsorption process of atoms in a mesoporous model system. The work lays the foundations for new insights into these kinds of energy materials.

Most battery materials, novel catalysts, and storage materials for hydrogen have one thing in common: they have a structure comprised of tiny pores in the nanometer range. These pores provide space which can be occupied by guest atoms, ions, and molecules. As a consequence, the properties of the guest and the host can change dramatically. Understanding the processes inside the pores is crucial to develop innovative energy technologies.

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Image: From the measurement data, the team was able to determine that the xenon atoms first accumulate on the inner walls of the pores (state 1), before they fill them up (state 2). The X-ray beam penetrates the sample from below.

Credit: © M. Künsting/HZB

Towards catalysts for solar hydrogen production

Thin films of molybdenum and sulfur belong to a class of materials that can be considered for use as photocatalysts. Inexpensive catalysts such as these are needed to produce hydrogen as a fuel using solar energy. However, they are still not very efficient as catalysts. A new instrument at the Helmholtz-Berlin Zentrum’s BESSY II now shows how a light pulse alters the surface properties of the thin film and activates the material as a catalyst.

MoS2 thin films of superposed alternating layers of molybdenum and sulfur atoms form a two-dimensional semiconducting surface. However, even a surprisingly low-intensity blue light pulse is enough to alter the properties of the surface and make it metallic. This has now been demonstrated by a team at BESSY II.

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Image: A new instrument at BESSY II can be used to study molybdenum-sulfide thin films that are of interest as catalysts for solar hydrogen production. A light pulse triggers a phase transition from the semiconducting to the metallic phase and thus enhances the catalytic activity.

Credit: © Martin Künsting /HZB

Perfect recipe for efficient perovskite solar cells

A long-cherished dream of materials researchers is a solar cell that converts sunlight into electrical energy as efficiently as silicon, but that can be easily and inexpensively fabricated from abundant materials. Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin have now come a step closer to achieving this. They have improved a process for vertically depositing a solution made from an inexpensive perovskite solute onto a moving substrate below. Not only have they discovered the crucial role played by one of the solvents used, but they have also taken a closer look at the aging and storage properties of the solution.

Solar cells made of crystalline silicon still account for the lion’s share of roof installations and solar farms. But other technologies have long since become established as well – such as those that convert sunlight into electrical energy through use of extremely thin layers of solar-cell material deposited upon a substrate. The perovskite solar cells that Prof. Eva Unger and her team at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) are researching belong to this group. “These are the best solar cells to date that can be made using a 2D ink”, the researcher explains. “And now their efficiencies are approaching those for cells made of crystalline silicon.”

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Image: The liquid solution of perovskite precursor, solvent, and additive flows from a slit-shaped nozzle onto the glass substrate being conveyed below.

Credit: © Jinzhao Li / HZB

Experiment reveals new options for synchrotron light sources

An international team has shown through a sensational experiment how diverse the possibilities for employing synchrotron light sources are. Accelerator experts from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), the German federal metrology institute Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), and Tsinghua University in Beijing have used a laser to manipulate electron bunches at PTB’s Metrology Light Source so that they emitted intense light pulses having a laser-like character. Using this method, specialised synchrotron radiation sources would potentially be able to fill a gap in the arsenal of available light sources and offer a prototype for industrial applications. The work was published on 24 February 2021 in the leading scientific publication Nature.

The most modern light sources for research are based on particle accelerators. These are large facilities in which electrons are accelerated to almost the speed of light, and then emit light pulses of a special character. In storage-ring-based synchrotron radiation sources, the electron bunches travel in the ring for billions of revolutions, then generate a rapid succession of very bright light pulses in the deflecting magnets. In contrast, the electron bunches in free-electron lasers (FELs) are accelerated linearly and then emit a single super-bright flash of laser-like light. Storage ring sources as well as FEL sources have facilitated advances in many fields in recent years, from deep insights into biological and medical questions to materials research, technology development, and quantum physics.

Combining the virtues of both systems

Now a Sino-German team has shown that a pattern of pulses can be generated in a synchrotron radiation source that combines the advantages of both systems. The synchrotron source delivers short, intense microbunches of electrons that produce radiation pulses having a laser-like character (as with FELs), but which can also follow each other closely in sequence (as with synchrotron light sources).

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Image credit: © Tsinghua University

World’s first video recording of a space-time crystal

A German-Polish research team has succeeded in creating a micrometer-sized space-time crystal consisting of magnons at room temperature. With the help of the scanning transmission X-ray microscope MAXYMUS at Bessy II at Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin, they were able to film the recurring periodic magnetization structure in a crystal. The research project was a collaboration between scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) in Stuttgart, Germany, the Adam Mickiewicz University and the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań in Poland.

A crystal is a solid whose atoms or molecules are regularly arranged in a particular structure. If one looks at the arrangement with a microscope, one discovers an atom or a molecule always at the same intervals. It is similar with space-time crystals: however, the recurring structure exists not only in space, but also in time. The smallest components are constantly in motion until, after a certain period, they arrange again into the original pattern.

In 2012, the Nobel Prize winner in physics Frank Wilczek discovered the symmetry of matter in time. He is considered the discoverer of these so-called time crystals, although as a theorist he predicted them only hypothetically. Since then, several scientists have searched for materials in which the phenomenon is observed. The fact that space-time crystals actually exist was first confirmed in 2017. However, the structures were only a few nanometers in size and formed only at very cold temperatures below -250 degrees Celsius. The fact that the German-Polish scientists have now succeeded in imaging relatively large space-time crystals of a few micrometers in a video at room temperature is therefore considered groundbreaking. But also because they were able to show that their space-time crystal, which consists of magnons, can interact with other magnons that encounter it.

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Image credit: © MPI-IS

An efficient tool to link X-ray experiments and ab initio theory

The electronic structure of complex molecules and their chemical reactivity can be assessed by the method of resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS) at BESSY II. However, the evaluation of RIXS data has so far required very long computing times. A team at BESSY II has now developed a new simulation method that greatly accelerates this evaluation. The results can even be calculated during the experiment. Guest users could use the procedure like a black box.

Molecules consisting of many atoms are complex structures. The outer electrons are distributed among the different orbitals, and their shape and occupation determine the chemical behaviour and reactivity of the molecule. The configuration of these orbitals can be analysed experimentally. Synchrotron sources such as BESSY II provide a method for this purpose: Resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS). However, to obtain information about the orbitals from experimental data, quantum chemical simulations are necessary. Typical computing times for larger molecules take weeks, even on high-performance computers.

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Image: The electronic structure of complex molecules can be assessed by the method of resonant inelastic X-ray scattering (RIXS) at BESSY II

Credit: © Martin Künsting /HZB

Solar hydrogen: Photoanodes made of α-SnWO4 promise high efficiencies

Photoanodes made of metal oxides are considered to be a viable solution for the production of hydrogen with sunlight. α-SnWO4 has optimal electronic properties for photoelectrochemical water splitting with sunlight, but corrodes easily. Protective layers of nickel oxide prevent corrosion, but reduce the photovoltage and limit the efficiency. Now a team at HZB has investigated at BESSY II what happens at the interface between the photoanode and the protective layer. Combined with theoretical methods, the measurement data reveal the presence of an oxide layer that impairs the efficiency of the photoanode.

Hydrogen is an important factor in a sustainable energy system. The gas stores energy in chemical form and can be used in many ways: as a fuel, a feedstock for other fuels and chemicals or even to generate electricity in fuel cells. One solution to produce hydrogen in a climate-neutral way is the electrochemical splitting of water with the help of sunlight. This requires photoelectrodes that provide a photovoltage and photocurrent when exposed to light and at the same time do not corrode in water. Metal oxide compounds have promising prerequisites for this. For example, solar water splitting devices using bismuth vanadate (BiVO4) photoelectrodes achieve already today ~8 % solar-to-hydrogen efficiency, which is close to the material’s theoretical maximum of 9 %.

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Image: TEM-Image of a α-SnWOfilm (pink) coated with 20 nm NiO(green). At the interface of α-SnWO4 and NiOx an additional interfacial layer can be observed.

Credit: HZB

High Frequency-Couplers for bERLinPro prove resilient

In synchrotron light sources, an electron accelerator brings electron bunches to almost the speed of light so that they can emit the special “synchrotron light”. The electron bunches get their enormous energy and their special shape from a standing electromagnetic alternating field in so-called cavities. With high electron currents, as required in the bERLinPro project, the power needed for the stable excitation of this high-frequency alternating field is enormous. The coupling of this high power is achieved with special antennas, so-called couplers, and is considered a great scientific and technical challenge. Now, a first measurement campaign with optimised couplers at bERLinPro shows that the goal can be achieved.

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Image: For the measurement campaign, two couplers were mounted in a horizontal test position under a local clean room tent.

Credit: © A. Neumann/HZB