MemberSeptember 10, 2021 at 7:49 pm
The team’s technique is called momentum and energy resolved tunneling spectroscopy, or MERTS, and is based on quantum mechanical tunneling, a process by which electrons can traverse energetic barriers by simply appearing on the other side — a phenomenon that never occurs in the macroscopic, classical world which we inhabit. However, at the quantum scale of individual atoms and electrons, bizarre effects such as tunneling can occasionally take place.
“It would be like you’re on a bike in a valley, and if you can’t pedal, you’d just roll back and forth. You would never get over the hill to the next valley,” Ashoori says. “But with quantum mechanics, maybe once out of every few thousand or million times, you would just appear on the other side. That doesn’t happen classically.”
Ashoori and his colleagues employed tunneling to probe a two-dimensional sheet of gallium arsenide. Instead of shining light to release electrons out of a material, as scientists do with ARPES, the team decided to use tunneling to send electrons in.
The team set up a two-dimensional electron system known as a quantum well. The system consists of two layers of gallium arsenide, separated by a thin barrier made from another material, aluminum gallium arsenide. Ordinarily in such a system, electrons in gallium arsenide are repelled by aluminum gallium arsenide, and would not go through the barrier layer.
“However, in quantum mechanics, every once in a while, an electron just pops through,” Jang says.
The researchers applied electrical pulses to eject electrons from the first layer of gallium arsenide and into the second layer. Each time a packet of electrons tunneled through the barrier, the team was able to measure a current using remote electrodes. They also tuned the electrons’ momentum and energy by applying a magnetic field perpendicular to the tunneling direction. They reasoned that those electrons that were able to tunnel through to the second layer of gallium arsenide did so because their momenta and energies coincided with those of electronic states in that layer. In other words, the momentum and energy of the electrons tunneling into gallium arsenide were the same as those of the electrons residing within the material.
By tuning electron pulses and recording those electrons that went through to the other side, the researchers were able to map the energy and momentum of electrons within the material. Despite existing in a solid and being surrounded by atoms, these electrons can sometimes behave just like free electrons, albeit with an “effective mass” that may be different than the free electron mass. This is the case for electrons in gallium arsenide, and the resulting distribution has the shape of a parabola. Measurement of this parabola gives a direct measure of the electron’s effective mass in the material.