Caltech Discovery in Fundamental Physics gives understanding of charge ordering in metals

Caltech researchers recently used a synchrotron X-ray source to investigate the existence of instabilities in the arrangement of the electrons in metals as a function of both temperature and pressure, and to pinpoint, for the first time, how those instabilities arise.

The researchers used the X-ray beams to investigate charge-order effects in two metals, chromium and niobium diselenide, at pressures ranging from 0 (a vacuum) to 100 kilobar (100,000 times normal atmospheric pressure) and at temperatures ranging from 3 to 300 K (or -454 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit). Niobium diselenide was selected because it has a high degree of charge order, while chromium, in contrast, has a high degree of spin order.

The researchers found that there is a simple correlation between pressure and how the communal electrons organize themselves within the crystal. Materials with completely different types of crystal structures all behave similarly. “These sorts of charge- and spin-order phenomena have been known for a long time, but their underlying mechanisms have not been understood until now,” says Rosenbaum.

One of the metallic samples studied, niobium diselenide, is seen here–the square in the center–as prepared for an X-ray diffraction experiment. Credit: University of Chicago/Argonne National Laborator

Nature Physics – Itinerant density wave instabilities at classical and quantum critical points


Charge ordering in metals is a fundamental instability of the electron sea, occurring in a host of materials and often linked to other collective ground states such as superconductivity. What is difficult to parse, however, is whether the charge order originates among the itinerant electrons or whether it arises from the ionic lattice. Here we employ high-resolution X-ray diffraction, combined with high-pressure and low-temperature techniques and theoretical modelling, to trace the evolution of the ordering wavevector Q in charge and spin density wave systems at the approach to both thermal and quantum phase transitions. The non-monotonic behaviour of Q with pressure and the limiting sinusoidal form of the density wave point to the dominant role of the itinerant instability in the vicinity of the critical points, with little influence from the lattice. Fluctuations rather than disorder seem to disrupt coherence.

7 pages of supplemental information

SOURCES- Caltech, Nature Physics