Fundamental quantum anomaly observed on Earth

An international team of physicists, materials scientists and string theoreticians have observed a phenomenon on Earth that was previously thought to only occur hundreds of light years away or at the time when the universe was born. This result could lead to a more evidence-based model for the understanding the universe and for improving the energy-conversion process in electronic devices. Previously it was thought to only occur in the early stages of the universe and within neutron stars and black holes.

IBM scientists predict this discovery will open up a rush of new developments around sensors, switches and thermoelectric coolers or energy-harvesting devices, for improved power consumption.

Using a recently discovered material called a Weyl semimetal, similar to 3D graphene, scientists at IBM Research have mimicked a gravitational field in their test sample by imposing a temperature gradient. The study was supervised by Prof. Kornelius Nielsch, Director at the Leibniz Institute for Materials and Solid State Research Dresden (IFW) and Prof. Claudia Felser, Director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden.

An international team of scientists have verified a fundamental effect in a crystal that had been previously only thought to be observable in the deep universe. The experiments have verified a quantum anomaly that had been experimentally elusive before. The results are appearing in the journal Nature. Credit: Robert Strasser, Kees Scherer; collage: Michael Büker

After conducting the experiment in a cryolab at the University of Hamburg with high magnetic fields, a team of theoreticians from TU Dresden, UC Berkeley and the Instituto de Fisica Teorica UAM/CSIC confirmed with detailed calculations that they observed a quantum effect known as an axial-gravitational anomaly, which breaks one of the classical conservation laws, such as charge, energy and momentum.

This law-breaking anomaly had previously been derived in purely theoretical reasoning with methods based on string theory. It was believed to exist only at extremely high temperatures of trillions of degrees, as an exotic form of matter, called a quark-gluon plasma, at the early stages of the universe deep within the cosmos or created using particle colliders. But to their surprise, the researchers discovered that it also exists on Earth in the properties of solid-state physics, on which much of the computing industry is based on, spanning from tiny transistors to cloud data centers. This discovery is appearing today in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

“For the first time, we have experimentally observed this fundamental quantum anomaly on Earth which is extremely important towards our understanding of the universe,” said Dr. Johannes Gooth, an IBM Research scientist and lead author of the paper. “We can now build novel solid-state devices based on this anomaly that have never been considered before to potentially circumvent some of the problems inherent in classical electronic devices, such as transistors.”

“This is an incredibly exciting discovery. We can clearly conclude that the same breaking of symmetry can be observed in any physical system, whether it occurred at the beginning of the universe or is happening today, right here on Earth,” said Prof. Dr. Karl Landsteiner, a string theorist at the Instituto de Fisica Teorica UAM/CSIC and co-author of the paper.

IBM scientists predict this discovery will open up a rush of new developments around sensors, switches and thermoelectric coolers or energy-harvesting devices, for improved power consumption.

Nature – Experimental signatures of the mixed axial–gravitational anomaly in the Weyl semimetal NbP

The conservation laws, such as those of charge, energy and momentum, have a central role in physics. In some special cases, classical conservation laws are broken at the quantum level by quantum fluctuations, in which case the theory is said to have quantum anomalies1. One of the most prominent examples is the chiral anomaly which involves massless chiral fermions. These particles have their spin, or internal angular momentum, aligned either parallel or antiparallel with their linear momentum, labelled as left and right chirality, respectively. In three spatial dimensions, the chiral anomaly is the breakdown (as a result of externally applied parallel electric and magnetic fields) of the classical conservation law that dictates that the number of massless fermions of each chirality are separately conserved. The current that measures the difference between left- and right-handed particles is called the axial current and is not conserved at the quantum level. In addition, an underlying curved space-time provides a distinct contribution to a chiral imbalance, an effect known as the mixed axial–gravitational anomaly1, but this anomaly has yet to be confirmed experimentally. However, the presence of a mixed gauge–gravitational anomaly has recently been tied to thermoelectrical transport in a magnetic field even in flat space-time, suggesting that such types of mixed anomaly could be experimentally probed in condensed matter systems known as Weyl semimetals. Here, using a temperature gradient, we observe experimentally a positive magneto-thermoelectric conductance in the Weyl semimetal niobium phosphide (NbP) for collinear temperature gradients and magnetic fields that vanishes in the ultra-quantum limit, when only a single Landau level is occupied. This observation is consistent with the presence of a mixed axial–gravitational anomaly, providing clear evidence for a theoretical concept that has so far eluded experimental detection.