New nanoscale electronic state discovered on graphene sheets

Eurekalert – Researchers from the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) have discovered electronic stripes, called ‘charge density waves’, on the surface of the graphene sheets that make up a graphitic superconductor. This is the first time these stripes have been seen on graphene, and the finding is likely to have profound implications for the exploitation of this recently discovered material, which scientists believe will play a key role in the future of nanotechnology.

These are electronic stripes, called “charge density waves,” on the surface of a graphitic superconductor. Credit: K. A. Rahnejat

Nature Communications – Charge density waves in the graphene sheets of the superconductor CaC6

Graphitic systems have an electronic structure that can be readily manipulated through electrostatic or chemical doping, resulting in a rich variety of electronic ground states. Here we report the first observation and characterization of electronic stripes in the highly electron-doped graphitic superconductor, CaC6, by scanning tunnelling microscopy and spectroscopy. The stripes correspond to a charge density wave with a period three times that of the Ca superlattice. Although the positions of the Ca intercalants are modulated, no displacements of the carbon lattice are detected, indicating that the graphene sheets host the ideal charge density wave. This provides an exceptionally simple material—graphene—as a starting point for understanding the relation between stripes and superconductivity. Furthermore, our experiments suggest a strategy to search for superconductivity in graphene, namely in the vicinity of striped ‘Wigner crystal’ phases, where some of the electrons crystallize to form a superlattice.

The LCN team donated extra electrons to a graphene surface by sliding calcium metal atoms underneath it. One would normally expect these additional electrons to spread out evenly on the graphene surface, just as oil spreads out on water. But by using an instrument known as a scanning tunneling microscope, which can image individual atoms, the researchers have found that the extra electrons arrange themselves spontaneously into nanometer-scale stripes. This unexpected behavior demonstrates that the electrons can have a life of their own which is not connected directly to the underlying atoms. The results inspire many new directions for both science and technology. For example, they suggest a new method for manipulating and encoding information, where binary zeros and ones correspond to stripes running from north to south and running from east to west respectively.

Professor Jan Zaanen of Leiden University and winner of the prestigious Spinoza prize for, among other things, his role as proponent of the stripe concept for atomically thin materials, commented: “This discovery is another important step towards demonstrating the ubiquity of stripes, and the fact that they appear in the world’s simplest host – the two-dimensional network of carbon atoms that is graphene – means that more great science and applications are not far behind.”

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