A new leap in understanding nickel oxide superconductors

Researchers discover they contain a phase of quantum matter, known as charge density waves, that’s common in other unconventional superconductors. In other ways, though, they’re surprisingly unique.


A new study shows that nickel oxide superconductors, which conduct electricity with no loss at higher temperatures than conventional superconductors do, contain a type of quantum matter called charge density waves, or CDWs, that can accompany superconductivity.

The presence of CDWs shows that these recently discovered materials, also known as nickelates, are capable of forming correlated states – “electron soups” that can host a variety of quantum phases, including superconductivity, researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University reported in Nature Physics today.

“Unlike in any other superconductor we know about, CDWs appear even before we dope the material by replacing some atoms with others to change the number of electrons that are free to move around,” said Wei-Sheng Lee, a SLAC lead scientist and  investigator with the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science (SIMES) who led the study.

“This makes the nickelates a very interesting new system – a new playground for studying unconventional superconductors.”

Nickelates and cuprates

In the 35 years since the first unconventional “high-temperature” superconductors were discovered, researchers have been racing to find one that could carry electricity with no loss at close to room temperature. This would be a revolutionary development, allowing things like perfectly efficient power lines, maglev trains and a host of other futuristic, energy-saving technologies.

But while a vigorous global research effort has pinned down many aspects of their nature and behavior, people still don’t know exactly how these materials become superconducting.

So the discovery of nickelate’s superconducting powers by SIMES investigators three years ago was exciting because it gave scientists a fresh perspective on the problem. 

Since then, SIMES researchers have explored the nickelates’ electronic structure – basically the way their electrons behave – and magnetic behavior. These studies turned up important similarities and subtle differences between nickelates and the copper oxides or cuprates – the first high-temperature superconductors ever discovered and still the world record holders for high-temperature operation at everyday pressures.

Since nickel and copper sit right next to each other on the periodic table of the elements, scientists were not surprised to see a kinship there, and in fact had suspected that nickelates might make good superconductors. But it turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to construct materials with just the right characteristics.

“This is still very new,” Lee said. “People are still struggling to synthesize thin films of these materials and understand how different conditions can affect the underlying microscopic mechanisms related to superconductivity.”

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: An illustration shows a type of quantum matter called charge density waves, or CDWs, superimposed on the atomic structure of a nickel oxide superconductor. (Bottom) The nickel oxide material, with nickel atoms in orange and oxygen atoms in red. (Top left) CDWs appear as a pattern of frozen electron ripples, with a higher density of electrons in the peaks of the ripples and a lower density of electrons in the troughs. (Top right) This area depicts another quantum state, superconductivity, which can also emerge in the nickel oxide. The presence of CDWs shows that nickel oxides are capable of forming correlated states – “electron soups” that can host a variety of quantum phases, including superconductivity.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Testing quantum electrodynamics prediction with surprising results

Echoing classical physics, quantum electrodynamics predicts the release of a spectral continuum of electromagnetic radiation upon the sudden acceleration of charged particles in quantum matter. Despite apparent theoretical success in describing sister nuclear processes, known as internal bremsstrahlung, following nuclear beta decay and K capture, the situation of the photoejection of an electron from an inner shell of an atom, intraatomic bremsstrahlung (IAB), is far from settled.

What is the discovery?
This paper addresses the experimental situation by applying a fluorescence coincidence technique to pluck the anticipated signal out of noise, taking advantage of the intense incident photon flux of a contemporary synchrotron radiation source; exploits advanced x-ray detectors which provide arrival time as well as energy information, and employs extraordinarily thin metal targets to minimize secondary effects. The surprising result is that in testing for the radiation expected from the innermost shell of copper with a 46 keV incident x-ray beam no such signal was observed at a sensitivity level that is over five sigmas below the predicted rate, taking into account the expected secondary signal, and below four sigmas if no particular secondary modeling is assumed.  In this work observations were made in the scattered photon energy range of 3 to 7 keV.

Read more on the CHESS website

Image: Schematic of the Scattering Chamber. A is the one element detector, B is the Kapton film covered main beam exit port, C is the helium (1 Atm.) filled chamber (input and output helium supply lines and chamber cover not shown), D is the target mount, E is the four-element detector, F is the Kapton film covered incident beam port.