Sophia Chen of MRS Bulletin interviews Dan Walkup of the National Institute of Standards and Technlogy about an unusual concentric quantum dot structure created in graphene. Read the abstract in Physical Review B .
SOPHIA CHEN: Physicist Dan Walkup has a mystery on his hands. Working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, his team has engineered a strange phenomenon in the 2D material graphene using a scanning tunneling microscope, or STM. They created the phenomenon by accident playing around with the STM, whose very sharp tip manipulates single atoms on a material. In the graphene it created a quantum dot (QD).
DAN WALKUP: Historically we weren’t trying to study coupled QDs per se. We were trying to figure out how to tune the properties of the graphene with STM tip. In that way we came eventually to this QD study.
SC: You can visualize the QD as an island in the graphene, where electric charges are confined and isolated from the rest of the material. At the QD, negative electrons gather around positive electron holes. They can also do the charge inverse of this, where the positive holes go around a negatively charged nucleus. From this, you might get the sense why QDs are sometimes known as artificial atoms. Like atoms, quantum dots consist of one type of charge going around a nucleus of the opposite charge. The researchers have taken the graphene, stuck it on a substrate of hexagonal boron nitride, and manipulated the electric charges with the STM inside these two materials to create the QD.
DW: We create a little pocket of charge in the hexagonal boron nitride, and that charge pocket attracts oppositely charged electrons in the graphene and makes a little charge pocket in the graphene, which becomes a QD.
SC: But this isn’t your garden variety QD. The geometry of this particular island has never been seen in graphene. By using the STM and applying a strong magnetic field to the material, Walkup’s team has made a nested QD, one island of charge stacked on the other. From overhead it looks like a bulls’ eye, with one island of charge at the center, and another forming a ring around it.
DW: The two dots are like the two tiers of this wedding cake.
SC: They’re two concentric quantum dots: one dot is in the center and the other dot is the ring around the first. These two structures are distinct quantum dots because electrons from one island are generally confined to that island. Walkup’s team ran some experiments in which they added electrons to each quantum dot. They did this by applying a voltage to the back of the material, causing electrons to move toward each dot. The researchers can then monitor where the electrons go using the scanning tunneling microscope. And what they found was puzzling. They found that as they added electrons to either of the two quantum dots, they behaved in a way that can’t be explained by accepted models of quantum dot physics. Walkup says you would expect the two dots to repel each other as you add electrons to them, since negative charges repel each other. But the inner dot only cared about its own charge. It did not care about the charge of the outer dot. Whereas the outer dot responded to the combined charge of both dots. They want to figure out why.
DW: Part of this paper is an open invitation to the theorists in the world to figure out why it is this way instead of some other way.
SC: A better understanding of the basic physics of this bizarre quantum dot configuration could help the development of applications such as quantum computing, in which information is stored in the way quantum dots share electrons. This work was published in a recent issue of Physical Review B.