Manipulating the flow of energy through superconductors could radically transform technology, perhaps leading to applications such as ultra-fast, highly efficient quantum computers. But these subtle dynamics—including heat dispersion—play out with absurd speed across dizzying subatomic structures.
Now, scientists have tracked never-before-seen interactions between electrons and the crystal lattice structure of copper-oxide superconductors. The collaboration, led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and including a Stony Brook grad student, achieved measurement precision faster than one trillionth of one second through a groundbreaking combination of experimental techniques.
“We found a nuanced atomic landscape, where certain high-frequency, ‘hot’ vibrations within the superconductor rapidly absorb energy from electrons and increase in intensity,” said first author Tatiana Konstantinova, a PhD student at Stony Brook University doing her thesis work at Brookhaven Lab. “Other sections of the lattice, however, were slow to react. Seeing this kind of tiered interaction transforms our understanding of copper oxides.”
“This breakthrough offers direct, fundamental insight into the puzzling characteristics of these remarkable materials,” said Brookhaven Lab scientist Yimei Zhu, who led the research. “We already had evidence of how lattice vibrations impact electron activity and disperse heat, but it was all through deduction. Now, finally, we can see it directly.”
The results, published April 27 in the journal Science Advances, could advance research into powerful, fleeting phenomena found in copper oxides—including high-temperature superconductivity—and help scientists engineer new, better-performing materials.
The team chose Bi2Sr2CaCu2O8, a well-known superconducting copper oxide that exhibits the strong interactions central to the study. Even at temperatures close to absolute zero, the crystalline atomic lattice vibrates and very slight pulses of energy can cause the vibrations to increase in amplitude.
“These atomic vibrations are regimented and discrete, meaning they divide across specific frequencies,” Zhu said. “We call vibrations with specific frequencies ‘phonons,’ and their interactions with flowing electrons were our target.”
This system of interactions is a bit like the distribution of water through a tree, Konstantinova explained. Exposed to rain, only the roots can absorb the water before spreading it through the trunk and into the branches.
“Here, the water is like energy, raining down on the branching structure of the superconductor, and the soil is like our electrons,” Konstantinova said. “But those electrons will only interact with certain phonons, which, in turn, redistribute the energy. Those phonons are like the hidden, highly interactive ‘roots’ that we needed to detect.”