Researchers Discover Superatoms with Magnetic Shells

A proposed assembly of FeMg8 magnetic superatoms where the directions of magnetic moment is indicated by arrows. Image courtesy of Victor Medel/VCU.

A team of Virginia Commonwealth University scientists has discovered a new class of ‘superatoms’ – a stable cluster of atoms that can mimic different elements of the periodic table – with unusual magnetic characteristics.

The superatom contains magnetized magnesium atoms, an element traditionally considered as non-magnetic. The metallic character of magnesium along with infused magnetism may one day be used to create molecular electronic devices for the next generation of faster processors, larger memory storage and quantum computers.

PNAS – Hund’s rule in superatoms with transition metal impurities

The quantum states in metal clusters bunch into supershells with associated orbitals having shapes resembling those in atoms, giving rise to the concept that selected clusters could mimic the characteristics of atoms and be classified as superatoms. Unlike atoms, the superatom orbitals span over multiple atoms and the filling of orbitals does not usually exhibit Hund’s rule seen in atoms. Here, we demonstrate the possibility of enhancing exchange splitting in superatom shells via a composite cluster of a central transition metal and surrounding nearly free electron metal atoms. The transition metal d states hybridize with superatom D states and result in enhanced splitting between the majority and minority sets where the moment and the splitting can be controlled by the nature of the central atom. We demonstrate these findings through studies on TMMgn clusters where TM is a 3d atom. The clusters exhibit Hund’s filling, opening the pathway to superatoms with magnetic shells

The team reports that the newly discovered cluster consisting of one iron and eight magnesium atoms acts like a tiny magnet that derives its magnetic strength from the iron and magnesium atoms. The combined unit matches the magnetic strength of a single iron atom while preferentially allowing electrons of specific spin orientation to be distributed throughout the cluster.

The team found that when the cluster had eight magnesium atoms it acquired extra stability due to filled electronic shells that were far separated from the unfilled shells. An atom is in a stable configuration when its outermost shell is full and far separated from unfilled shells, as found in inert gas atoms. Khanna said that such phenomena commonly occur with paired electrons which are non-magnetic, but in this study the magnetic electronic shell showed stability.

According to Khanna, the new cluster had a magnetic moment of four Bohr magnetons, which is almost twice that of an iron atom in solid iron magnets. A magnetic moment is a measure of the magnetic strength of the cluster. Although the periodic table has more than one hundred elements, there are only nine elements that exhibit magnetic character in solid form.

“A combination such as the one we have created here can lead to significant developments in the area of “molecular electronics” where such devices allow the flow of electrons with particular spin orientation desired for applications such as quantum computers. These molecular devices are also expected to help make denser integrated devices, higher data processing, and other benefits,” said Reveles.

Khanna and his team are conducting preliminary studies on the assemblies of the new superatoms and have made some promising observations that may have applications in spintronics. Spintronics is a process using electron spin to synthesize new devices for memory and data processing.

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