Using precision techniques for making superconducting thin films layer-by-layer, physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have identified a single layer responsible for one such material’s ability to become superconducting, i.e., carry electrical current with no energy loss. The technique, described in the October 30, 2009, issue of Science, could be used to engineer ultrathin films with “tunable” superconductivity for higher-efficiency electronic devices.
The thinner the material (and the higher its transition temperature to a superconductor), the greater its potential for applications where the superconductivity can be controlled by an external electric field.
Bozovic explained that, in the material he studied, the electrons required for superconductivity actually come from the metallic material below the interface. They leak into the insulating material above the interface and achieve the critical level in that second copper-oxide layer.
But in principle, he says, there are other ways to achieve the same concentration of electrons in that single layer, for example, by doping achieved by applying electric fields. That would result in high-temperature superconductivity in a single copper-oxide layer measuring just 0.66 nanometers.
From a practical viewpoint, this discovery opens a path toward the fabrication of electronic devices with modulated, or tunable, superconducting properties which can be controlled by electric or magnetic fields.
“Electronic devices already consume a large fraction of our electricity usage — and this is growing fast.” Bozovic continued. “Clearly, we will need less-power hungry electronics in the future.” Superconductors, which operate without energy loss — particularly those that operate at warmer, more-practical temperatures — may be one way to go.
Bozovic’s layer-by-layer synthesis method and ability to strategically alter individual layers’ composition might also be used to explore and possibly control other electronic phenomena and properties that emerge at the interfaces between layered materials.
The question of how thin cuprate layers can be while still retaining high-temperature superconductivity (HTS) has been challenging to address, in part because experimental studies require the synthesis of near-perfect ultrathin HTS layers and ways to profile the superconducting properties such as the critical temperature and the superfluid density across interfaces with atomic resolution. We used atomic-layer molecular beam epitaxy to synthesize bilayers of a cuprate metal (La1.65Sr0.45CuO4) and a cuprate insulator (La2CuO4) in which each layer is just three unit cells thick. We selectively doped layers with isovalent Zn atoms, which suppress superconductivity and act as markers, to show that this interface HTS occurs within a single CuO2 plane. This approach may also be useful in fabricating HTS devices.