Revealing the thermal heat dance of magnetic domains

Scientists invented a new way of tracking electronic properties inside materials, and used it to visualize magnetic domains in a previously unseen way.

Everyone knows that holding two magnets together will lead to one of two results: they stick together, or they push each other apart. From this perspective, magnetism seems simple, but scientists have struggled for decades to really understand how magnetism behaves on the smallest scales. On the near-atomic level, magnetism is made of many ever-shifting kingdoms—called magnetic domains—that create the magnetic properties of the material. While scientists know these domains exist, they are still looking for the reasons behind this behavior.

Now, a collaboration led by scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Max Born Institute (MBI) published a study in Nature in which they used a novel analysis technique—called coherent correlation imaging (CCI)—to image the evolution of magnetic domains in time and space without any previous knowledge. The scientists could not see the “dance of the domains” during the measurement but only afterward, when they used the recorded data to “rewind the tape.”

The “movie” of the domains shows how the boundaries of these domains shift back and forth in some areas but stay constant in others. The researchers attribute this behavior to a property of the material called “pinning.” While pinning is a known property of magnetic materials, the team could directly image for the first time how a network of pinning sites affects the motion of interconnected domain walls.

“Many details about the changes in magnetic materials are only accessible through direct imaging, which we couldn’t do until now. It’s basically a dream come true for studying magnetic motion in materials,” said Wen Hu, scientist at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) and co-corresponding author of the study.

Read more on the Brookhaven National Laboratory website

Image: The image shows the areas where the borders of magnetic domains accumulate over time. It is similar to a photo of a traffic intersection taken at night with a long exposure time. In such a photo, we would see brighter areas along the paths that most cars’ headlights traveled. Here we see brighter areas where most domain walls come together.

Buckyballs on gold are less exotic than graphene

C60 molecules on a gold substrate appear more complex than their graphene counterparts, but have much more ordinary electronic properties. This is now shown by measurements with ARPES at BESSY II and detailed calculations.

Graphene consists of carbon atoms that crosslink in a plane to form a flat honeycomb structure. In addition to surprisingly high mechanical stability, the material has exciting electronic properties: The electrons behave like massless particles, which can be clearly demonstrated in spectrometric experiments. Measurements reveal a linear dependence of energy on momentum, namely the so-called Dirac cones – two lines that cross without a band gap – i.e. an energy difference between electrons in the conduction band and those in the valence bands.

Variants in graphene architecture

Artificial variants of graphene architecture are a hot topic in materials research right now. Instead of carbon atoms, quantum dots of silicon have been placed, ultracold atoms have been trapped in the honeycomb lattice with strong laser fields, or carbon monoxide molecules have been pushed into place on a copper surface piece by piece with a scanning tunneling microscope, where they could impart the characteristic graphene properties to the electrons of the copper. 

Artificial graphene with buckyballs?

A recent study suggested that it is infinitely easier to make artificial graphene using C60 molecules called buckyballs. Only a uniform layer of these needs to be vapor-deposited onto gold for the gold electrons to take on the special graphene properties. Measurements of photoemission spectra appeared to show a kind of Dirac cone.

Analysis of band structures at BESSY II

“That would be really quite amazing,” says Dr. Andrei Varykhalov, of HZB, who heads a photoemission and scanning tunneling microscopy group. “Because the C60 molecule is absolutely nonpolar, it was hard for us to imagine how such molecules would exert a strong influence on the electrons in the gold.” So Varykhalov and his team launched a series of measurements to test this hypothesis.

In tricky and detailed analyses, the Berlin team was able to study C60 layers on gold over a much larger energy range and for different measurement parameters. They used angle-resolved ARPES spectroscopy at BESSY II, which enables particularly precise measurements, and also analysed electron spin for some measurements.

Read more on the HZB website

Image: Using density functional theory and measurement data from spin-resolved photoemission, the team investigated the origin of the repeating Au(111) bands and resolved them as deep surface resonances. These resonances lead to an onion-like Fermi surface of Au(111).

Credit: © HZB