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Research Alert: Feb. 4, 2014

Diamond defects boost quantum technology

New research shows that a remarkable defect in synthetic diamond produced by chemical vapor deposition allows researchers to measure, witness, and potentially manipulate electrons in a manner that could lead to new “quantum technology” for information processing.

An “NV-” center can be created within a diamond’s scaffold-like structure by replacing a missing carbon atom with a nitrogen atom (N)that has trapped an electron making the center negatively charged. Scientists can monitor the center’s behavior and thereby provide a window for understanding how electrons respond to different conditions. The center has the potential to serve as a qubit in future quantum computers.

For the first time, Struzhkin and his team, led by Marcus Doherty of the Australian National University, observed what happens to electrons in these NV- centers under high-pressure and normal temperatures. Coauthor of the study, Viktor Struzhkin at the Carnegie Institution for Science, explained: “Our technique offers a powerful new tool for analyzing and manipulating electrons to advance our understanding of high-pressure superconductivity, as well as magnetic and electrical properties.”

Struzhkin and team subjected single-crystal diamonds to pressures up to 600,000 times atmospheric pressure at sea level (60 gigapascals, GPa) in a diamond anvil cell and observed how electron spin and motion were affected. They optically excited the NV- centers with light and scanned microwave frequencies in a process called optically detected magnetic resonance to determine any changes. The NV- center is very sensitive to magnetic fields, electrical fields, and stress.

Until now, researchers thought that the orbits of the electrons that contribute to the defect’s electronic structure and spin dynamics were localized to the area immediately surrounding the vacancy. Doherty explained: “Our team found instead that the electrons also orbit more distant atoms and that the span of their orbits contract with increasing pressure.”

Quantum dots provide complete control of photons

A semiconductive materials research group led by Professor Per Olof Holtz is now presenting an alternative method where asymmetrical quantum dots of a nitride material with indium is formed at the top of microscopic six-sided pyramids. With these, they have succeeded in creating light with a high degree of linear polarization, on average 84%. The results are being published in the Nature periodical Light: Science & Applications.

“We’re demonstrating a new way to generate polarized light directly, with a predetermined polarization vector and with a degree of polarization substantially higher than with the methods previously launched,” Professor Holtz says.

In experiments, quantum dots were used that emit violet light with a wavelength of 415 nm, but the photons can in principle take on any color at all within the visible spectrum through varying the amount of the metal indium.

“Our theoretical calculations point to the fact that an increased amount of indium in the quantum dots further improves the degree of polarization,” says reader Fredrik Karlsson, one of the authors of the article.

The micropyramid is constructed through crystalline growth, atom layer by atom layer, of the semiconductive material gallium nitride. A couple of nanothin layers where the metal indium is also included are laid on top of this. From the asymmetrical quantum dot thus formed at the top, light particles are emitted with a well-defined wavelength.

The results of the research are opening up possibilities, for example for more energy-effective polarized light-emitting diodes in the light source for LCD screens. As the quantum dots can also emit one photon at a time, this is very promising technology for quantum encryption, a growing technology for wiretap-proof communications.

New theory may lead to more efficient solar cells

A new theoretical model developed by professors at the University of Houston (UH) and Université de Montréal may hold the key to methods for developing better materials for solar cells.

Eric Bittner, a John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Chemistry and Physics in UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Carlos Silva, an associate professor at the Université de Montréal and Canada Research Chair in Organic Semiconductor Materials, say the model could lead to new solar cell materials made from improved blends of semiconducting polymers and fullerenes.

“Scientists don’t fully understand what is going on inside the materials that make up solar cells. We were trying to get at the fundamental photochemistry or photophysics that describes how these cells work,” Bittner said.

“There is a theoretical limit for the efficiency of the ideal solar cell – the Shockley-Queisser limit. The theory we published describes how we might be able to get above this theoretical limit by taking advantage of quantum mechanical effects,” Bittner said. “By understanding these effects and making use of them in the design of a solar cell, we believe you can improve efficiency.”

Silva added, “In polymeric semiconductors, where plastics form the active layer of solar cells, the electronic structure of the material is intimately correlated with the vibrational motion within the polymer chain. Quantum-mechanical effects due to such vibrational-electron coupling give rise to a plethora of interesting physical processes that can be controlled to optimize solar cell efficiencies by designing materials that best exploit them.”

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