Monday, April 29, 2024

Moiré and making superlattices

One of the biggest condensed matter trends in recent years has been the stacking of 2D materials and the development of moiré lattices.  The idea is, take a layer of 2D material and stack it either (1) on itself but with a twist angle, or (2) on another material with a slightly different lattice constant.  Because of interactions between the layers, the electrons in the material have an effective potential energy that has a spatial periodicity associated with the moiré pattern that results.  Twisted stacking hexagonal lattice materials (like graphene or many of the transition metal dichalcogenides) results in a triangular moiré lattice with a moiré lattice constant that depends on twist angle.  Some of the most interesting physics in these systems seems to pop out when the moiré lattice constant is on the order of a few nm to 10 nm or so.  The upside of the moiré approach is that it can produce such an effective lattice over large areas with really good precision and uniformity (provided that the twist angle can really be controlled - see here and here, for example.)  You might imagine using lithography to make designer superlattices, but getting the kind of cleanliness and homogeneity at these very small length scales is very challenging.

It's not surprising, then, that people are interested in somehow applying superlattice potentials to nearby monolayer systems.  Earlier this year, Nature Materials ran three papers published sequentially in one issue on this topic, and this is the accompanying News and Views article.

  • In one approach, a MoSe2/WS2 bilayer is made and the charge in the bilayer is tuned so that the bilayer system is a Mott insulator, with charges localized in exactly the moiré lattice sites.  That results in an electrostatic potential that varies on the moiré lattice scale that can then influence a nearby monolayer, which then shows cool moiré/flat band physics itself.
  • Closely related, investigators used a small-angle twisted bilayer of graphene.  That provides a moiré periodic dielectric environment for a nearby single layer of WSe2.  They can optically excite Rydberg excitons in the WSe2, excitons that are comparatively big and puffy and thus quite sensitive to their dielectric environment.  
  • Similarly, twisted bilayer WS2 can be used to apply a periodic Coulomb potential to a nearby bilayer of graphene, resulting in correlated insulating states in the graphene that otherwise wouldn't be there.

Clearly this is a growth industry.  Clever, creative ways to introduce highly ordered superlattice potentials on very small lengthscales with other symmetries besides triangular lattices would be very interesting.

Monday, April 15, 2024

The future of the semiconductor industry, + The Mechanical Universe

 Three items of interest:

  • This article is a nice review of present semiconductor memory technology.  The electron micrographs in Fig. 1 and the scaling history in Fig. 3 are impressive.
  • This article in IEEE Spectrum is a very interesting look at how some people think we will get to chips for AI applications that contain a trillion (\(10^{12}\)) transistors.  For perspective, the processor in my laptop used to write this has about 40 billion transistors.  (The article is nice, though the first figure commits the terrible sin of having no y-axis number or label; clearly it's supposed to represent exponential growth as a function of time in several different parameters.)
  • Caltech announced the passing of David Goodstein, renowned author of States of Matter and several books about the energy transition.  I'd written about my encounter with him, and I wanted to take this opportunity to pass along a working link to the youtube playlist for The Mechanical Universe.  While the animation can look a little dated, it's worth noting that when this was made in the 1980s, the CGI was cutting edge stuff that was presented at siggraph.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Electronic structure and a couple of fun links

Real life has been very busy recently.  Posting will hopefully pick up soon.  

One brief item.  Earlier this week, Rice hosted Gabi Kotliar for a distinguished lecture, and he gave a very nice, pedagogical talk about different approaches to electronic structure calculations.  When we teach undergraduate chemistry on the one hand and solid state physics on the other, we largely neglect electron-electron interactions (except for very particular issues, like Hund's Rules).  Trying to solve the many-electron problem fully is extremely difficult.  Often, approximating by solving the single-electron problem (e.g. finding the allowed single-electron states for a spatially periodic potential as in a crystal) and then "filling up"* those states gives decent results.   As we see in introductory courses, one can try different types of single-electron states.  We can start with atomic-like orbitals localized to each site, and end up doing tight binding / LCAO / Hückel (when applied to molecules).  Alternately, we can do the nearly-free electron approach and think about Bloch wavesDensity functional theory, discussed here, is more sophisticated but can struggle with situations when electron-electron interactions are strong.

One of Prof. Kotliar's big contributions is something called dynamical mean field theory, an approach to strongly interacting problems.  In a "mean field" theory, the idea is to reduce a many-particle interacting problem to an effective single-particle problem, where that single particle feels an interaction based on the averaged response of the other particles.  Arguably the most famous example is in models of magnetism.  We know how to write the energy of a spin \(\mathbf{s}_{i}\) in terms of its interactions \(J\) with other spins \(\mathbf{s}_{j}\) as \(\sum_{j} J \mathbf{s}_{i}\cdot \mathbf{s}_{j}\).  If there are \(z\) such neighbors that interact with spin \(i\), then we can try instead writing that energy as \(zJ \mathbf{s}_{i} \cdot \langle \mathbf{s}_{i}\rangle\), where the angle brackets signify the average.  From there, we can get a self-consistent equation for \(\langle \mathbf{s}_{i}\rangle\).  

Dynamical mean field theory is rather similar in spirit; there are non-perturbative ways to solve some strong-interaction "quantum impurity" problems.  DMFT is like a way of approximating a whole lattice of strongly interacting sites as a self-consistent quantum impurity problem for one site.  The solutions are not for wave functions but for the spectral function.  We still can't solve every strongly interacting problem, but Prof. Kotliar makes a good case that we have made real progress in how to think about many systems, and when the atomic details matter.

*Here, "filling up" means writing the many-electron wave function as a totally antisymmetric linear combination of single-electron states, including the spin states.

PS - two fun links: