New Phase of Superconductivity Discovered

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have discovered a previously unknown phase in a class of superconductors called iron arsenides. This sheds light on a debate over the interactions between atoms and electrons that are responsible for their unusual superconductivity.

“This new magnetic phase, which has never been observed before, could have significant implications for our understanding of unconventional superconductivity,” said Ray Osborn, an Argonne physicist and coauthor on the paper.

The Argonne team discovered a phase where the material returns to four-fold symmetry, rather than two-fold, close to the onset of superconductivity. (See diagram).

“It is visible using neutron powder diffraction, which is exquisitely sensitive, but which you can only perform at this resolution in a very few places in the world,” Osborn said. Neutron powder diffraction reveals both the locations of the atoms and the directions of their microscopic magnetic moments.

The reason why the discovery of the new phase is interesting is that it may help to resolve a long-standing debate about the origin of nematic order. Theorists have been arguing whether it is caused by magnetism or by orbital ordering.

The orbital explanation posits that electrons like to sit in particular d orbitals, driving the lattice into the nematic phase. Magnetic models, on the other hand (developed by study co-authors Ilya Eremin and Andrey Chubukov at the Institut für Theoretische Physik in Germany and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively) suggest that magnetic interactions are what drive the two-fold symmetry—and that they are the key to the superconductivity itself. Perhaps what binds the pairs of electrons together in iron arsenide superconductors is magnetism.

“Orbital theories do not predict a return to four-fold symmetry at this point,” Osborn said, “but magnetic models do.”

“So far, this effect has only been observed experimentally in these sodium-doped compounds,” he said, “but we believe it provides evidence for a magnetic explanation of nematic order in the iron arsenides in general.”

It could also affect our understanding of superconductivity in other types of superconductors, such as the copper oxides, where nematic distortions have also been seen, Osborn said.

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