Some ideas come as quickly as turning on a light bulb. Scientists at University of Chicago and Penn State University discovered that sometimes the idea is actually turning on a lightbulb. A recently published article in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s new online journal Science Advances explains the effects of florescent lights at specific wavelengths on the topological insulators that the researchers were studying.
It had been difficult to make experimental circuits with the insulators because they are very fragile as even air exposure can cause damage, Penn State News reports. Scientists believe that the topological insulators will be useful in the development of quantum computers and spin-based electronics.
The lead author of the paper, graduate student Andrew Yeats, spoke about how the accidental discovery came about.
To be honest, we were trying to study something completely different. There was a slow drift in our measurements that we traced to a particular type of fluorescent lights in our lab. At first we were glad to be rid of it, and then it struck us — our room lights were doing something that people work very hard to do in these materials.
After realizing that the lights in the room were affecting the insulators, the scientists were suddenly very interested in the overhead lighting that had been installed by contractor Bulley & Andrews. The superintendent of the construction company was caught off-guard by the sudden interest in his handiwork.
I’ve never had a client so obsessed with the overhead lighting. I could have never imagined how important it would turn out to be.
Once they isolated the wavelength needed to manipulate the insulators, the researchers were able to change the electronic properties of it, allowing them to “write” on it. They also found that they can “erase” by using a different wavelength of light, according to UChicago News. David D. Awschalom, one of the two lead researchers in this project, compared the finding to a popular children’s drawing toy.
It’s like having a sort of quantum Etch A Sketch in our lab. Now we can sketch and measure devices for our experiments in real time. When we’re done, we just erase it and make something else. We can do this in less than a second.
The scientists testing their methods on other materials and found that it is applicable not just to topological insulators. They were able to see results on other materials as well. Awschalom hopes that the finding will mean positive changes in various nanoscale materials and allow for faster, easier manipulation of these materials.
In a way, the most exciting aspect of this work is that it should be applicable to a wide range of nanoscale materials such as complex oxides, graphene and transition metal dichalcogenides. It’s not just that it’s faster and easier. This effect could allow electrical tuning of materials in a wide range of optical, magnetic and spectroscopic experiments where electrical contacts are extremely difficult or simply impossible.