Ultrafast imaging of electron waves in graphene

Celia Elliott

The fastest movies ever made of electron motion, created by scattering x-rays off of graphene, have shown that the interaction among its electrons is surprisingly weak.

Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon whose unusual electronic structure makes it a candidate for a new generation of low-cost, flexible electronics. A major outstanding question is whether the electrons in graphene move independently, or if their motion is correlated by Coulomb repulsion.

Using advanced x-ray scattering techniques, physicists in Peter Abbamonte’s group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have imaged the motion of electrons in graphene with resolutions of 0.533 Å and 10.3 attoseconds. Their results were published on November 5 in Science.

Exactly how small and how fast are these measurements? An angstrom is 1/10,000,000,000 of a meter, about the width of a hydrogen atom. And an attosecond is to a second as a second is to the age of the universe.

The researchers found that graphene screens Coulomb interactions surprisingly effectively, causing it to act like a simple, independent-electron semimetal. Their work explains several mysteries, including why freestanding graphene fails to become an insulator as predicted. The study also demonstrates a new approach to studying ultrafast dynamics, creating a new window on the most fundamental properties of materials.

The experiments were carried out at the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois and the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory.

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In 1950, the physicist Arnold Nordsieck built himself this analog computer. Nordsieck, then at the University of Illinois, had earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, under Robert Oppenheimer. To make his analog computer for calculating differential equations, the inventive and budget-conscious Nordsieck relied on US $700 worth of military surplus parts, particularly synchros—specialized motors that translate the position of the shaft into an electrical signal, and vice versa.