This pattern shows the tunneling potential of electrons on oxygen atoms “north” and “east” of each copper atom (shown embedded in the pattern) in the copper-oxide layer of a superconductor in the pseudogap phase. On oxygen atoms north of each copper, the tunneling potential is strong, as indicated by the brightness of the yellow patches forming lines in the north-south direction. On oxygen atoms east of each copper, the tunneling potential is weaker, indicated by less intense yellow lines in the east-west direction. This apparent broken symmetry may help scientists understand the pseudogap phase of copper-oxide superconductors.
Scientists have discovered a fundamental difference in how electrons behave at the two distinct oxygen-atom sites within each copper-oxide unit, which appears to be a specific property of the non-superconducting pseudogap phase. The research — described in the July 15, 2010, issue of Nature — may lead to new approaches to understanding the pseudogap phase, which has been hypothesized as a key hurdle to achieving room-temperature superconductivity.
“Many people consider the disappearance of superconductivity that occurs when the pseudogap phase emerges as an indication that the pseudogap is the killer of room temperature superconductivity in the copper-oxides,” said study leader Séamus Davis, director of the Center for Emergent Superconductivity at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and the J.D. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell University. “Detecting a difference in electron behavior at the two oxygen sites within each copper-oxide unit at the pseudogap energy may be a very significant step toward identifying exactly what the pseudogap state is and how it affects superconductivity
In the high-transition-temperature (high-Tc) superconductors the pseudogap phase becomes predominant when the density of doped holes is reduced1. Within this phase it has been unclear which electronic symmetries (if any) are broken, what the identity of any associated order parameter might be, and which microscopic electronic degrees of freedom are active. Here we report the determination of a quantitative order parameter representing intra-unit-cell nematicity: the breaking of rotational symmetry by the electronic structure within each CuO2 unit cell. We analyse spectroscopic-imaging scanning tunnelling microscope images of the intra-unit-cell states in underdoped Bi2Sr2CaCu2O8 + δ and, using two independent evaluation techniques, find evidence for electronic nematicity of the states close to the pseudogap energy. Moreover, we demonstrate directly that these phenomena arise from electronic differences at the two oxygen sites within each unit cell. If the characteristics of the pseudogap seen here and by other techniques all have the same microscopic origin, this phase involves weak magnetic states at the O sites that break 90°-rotational symmetry within every CuO2 unit cell.