(HPC.Wire) researchers at the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Quantum Materials Center (QMC) and colleagues have shown that uranium ditelluride (or UTe2 for short) displays many of the hallmarks of a topological superconductor—a material that may unlock new ways to build quantum computers and other futuristic devices.
“Nature can be wicked,” says Johnpierre Paglione, a professor of physics at UMD, the director of QMC and senior author on one of the papers. “There could be other reasons we’re seeing all this wacky stuff, but honestly, in my career, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
superconductors achieve their super-conductance in different ways. Since the early 2000s, scientists have been looking for a special kind of superconductor, one that relies on an intricate choreography of the subatomic particles that actually carry its current.
This choreography has a surprising director: a branch of mathematics called topology. Topology is a way of grouping together shapes that can be gently transformed into one another through pushing and pulling. For example, a ball of dough can be shaped into a loaf of bread or a pizza pie, but you can’t make it into a donut without poking a hole in it. The upshot is that, topologically speaking, a loaf and a pie are identical, while a donut is different. In a topological superconductor, electrons perform a dance around each other while circling something akin to the hole in the center of a donut.
Unfortunately, there’s no good way to slice a superconductor open and zoom in on these electronic dance moves. At the moment, the best way to tell whether or not electrons are boogieing on an abstract donut is to observe how a material behaves in experiments. Until now, no superconductor has been conclusively shown to be topological, but the new papers show that UTe2 looks, swims and quacks like the right kind of topological duck.
One study, by Paglione’s team in collaboration with the group of Aharon Kapitulnik at Stanford University, reveals that not one but two kinds of superconductivity exist simultaneously in UTe2. Using this result, as well as the way light is altered when it bounces off the material (in addition to previously published experimental evidence), they were able to narrow down the types of superconductivity that are present to two options, both of which theorists believe are topological. They published their findings on July 15, 2021, in the journal Science.
“It’s kind of like a perfect storm superconductor,” says Anlage. “It’s combining a lot of different things that no one’s ever seen combined before.”
In the new Science paper, Paglione and his collaborators reported two new measurements that reveal the internal structure of UTe2. The UMD team measured the material’s specific heat, which characterizes how much energy it takes to heat it up by one degree. They measured the specific heat at different starting temperatures and watched it change as the sample became superconducting.
“Normally there’s a big jump in specific heat at the superconducting transition,” says Paglione. “But we see that there’s actually two jumps. So that’s evidence of actually two superconducting transitions, not just one. And that’s highly unusual.”
The two jumps suggested that electrons in UTe2 can pair up to perform either of two distinct dance patterns.