Ultrafast imaging of electron waves in graphene

Celia Elliott
11/5/2010

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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Innovative materials are the foundation of countless breakthrough technologies, and the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center will develop them. The new center is supported by a six-year, $15.6 million award from the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program. It is led by Professor Nadya Mason of Engineering at Illinois’ Department of Physics and its Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory

By building highly interdisciplinary teams of researchers and students, the Illinois Materials Research Center will focus on two types of materials. One group will study new magnetic materials, where ultra-fast magnetic variations could form the basis of smaller, more robust magnetic memory storage. The second group will design materials that can withstand bending and crumpling that typically destroys the properties of those materials and even create materials where crumpling enhances performance.

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