Terahertz lights up the nanoscale: Exposing the ultrafast dynamics of Dirac systems using near-field spectroscopy

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Electrical and Electronic Engineering


As our reliance on technology has increased, so has the demand for faster devices with increased functionality. A perfect example is the mobile phone - starting with the capability to only make calls and send text messages, we now have smartphones that have GPS, step monitors, can search the internet, take photos and videos. Despite this rapid progress, 'smart' devices remain relatively energy-inefficient with high power consumption and low battery life. With today's environmental climate and the increased use of technology, there is a large need for novel '21st-century products' that not only see a step change in device speed but are also energy-efficient. Topological insulators (TIs), in particular, have emerged as potential building blocks for this next-generation of devices. The bulk of the material is insulating, whereas the surface hosts exotic Dirac electrons travelling close to 10,000,000 m/s - 100 times faster than silicon. Due to their topological nature, surface electrons are immune to scattering from non-magnetic impurities and crystal defects. They therefore behave as if travelling on a tramline: faster, with less resistance and less heat production than conventional materials, making them more energy-efficient. Electrons can also only travel in one direction, which is set by their inherent angular momentum or 'spin'. This property is particularly useful for information processing, quantum computing and spintronic applications. To exploit these advantageous properties in a device, an in-depth understanding of key parameters, such as electron mobility (speed) and lifetime, is essential. Although significant progress has been made to probe the elusive properties of these materials, it has proven difficult to isolate the surface from the bulk. Surface-sensitive techniques are required to examine the surface electrons independently and provide an in-depth understanding of the underlying physical mechanisms governing surface transport in these materials.
The terahertz (THz) frequency range - falling in between microwave and infrared radiation - provides the perfect probe for investigating Dirac materials. It is capable of penetrating through several opaque materials, such as plastics, paper and textiles and is currently used in airport body scanners. Yet more excitingly, it can also measure how conductive a material is in a non-contact, non-destructive manner. Far-field THz probes have already been used to examine TI and have revealed that electrons can relax from the bulk to the surface, leading to a reduction in impurity scattering. However, these THz probes have all been limited in spatial resolution. The diffraction limit of light restricts THz radiation to a spot size of 150 microns, so they can only measure an effective conductivity due to both the bulk and the surface. This project aims to push the spatial resolution of THz probes down to nanometre-length scales. By coupling THz radiation to an atomic-force microscope tip, the THz probe can be confined to a spot size only limited by the radius curvature of the tip, providing <30nm spatial resolution. The THz radiation scattered back from the tip and sample contains all the local information about the material conductivity. By oscillating the tip and change the tapping amplitude, the penetration depth of the THz probe can be altered to provide surface-sensitivity. A large tapping amplitude probes the bulk of the material, where a small tapping amplitude probes only the surface. This technique will be utilised on TI thin films and nanostructures to perform differential depth-profiling of the local electron mobility, lifetime and conductivity. This will allow the surface behaviour to be isolated from the bulk and examined directly for the first time. This information will open up a pathway for harnessing the advantageous properties of these Dirac materials to develop novel '21st century products'.

Planned Impact

UK characterisation capability: This research proposal will provide a unique versatility for nano-characterisation of advanced functional materials in the UK. It will provide additional capability to existing THz microscopy systems within the UK and directly feed into current leading facilities provided by the Henry Royce Institute (Royce) and EPSRC, placing the UK at the forefront of materials characterisation. To ensure sustainability and allow for further development of this characterisation facility, I will liaise with neaspec GmbH to design and fabricate custom parts for the THz-SNOM and ensure optimum performance and versatility. This will allow the UK to compete on an international level, becoming a world-leader in THz microscopy and 2D materials research.
Economy: This research will provide additional capability for advanced nanoscale characterisation in the THz range of 'smart' materials. It will provide a vital understanding and control of the optoelectronic properties of novel topological materials, providing a basis for development of these materials in device applications. Topological insulator materials have a variety of applications, in particular in the energy (eg. increased absorption for solar cells), ICT (eg. candidates for ultrafast wireless communication) and technology (eg. faster transistors and nanoelectronics) sectors. As their charge carriers can travel close to the speed of light, these materials are primed to bridge the gap between photonic and electronic devices, drastically increasing the speed at which devices can operate. They are therefore expected to have a large impact on the UK economy, spring-boarding the next-generation of '21st-century' products with increased functionality at a reduced energy consumption. To ensure maximum exploration of applications of these materials, I will highlight key results monthly to an academic and industrial audience via a group website and blog, inviting a UK researcher in the field to contribute to the blog every 6 months to highlight their own work and promote discussion. I will also organise a topical research meeting for the THz and 2D materials community at Manchester for a focused discussion on collaboration opportunities between research groups and industry. I will exploit the industrial connections provided by Manchester and Royce, to explore a route to market for topological nanodevices and to promote increased collaboration with industry.
Society: Understanding these novel 'smart' multifunctional materials will lay the groundwork for developing novel nanodevices that can impact on the lives of the general population. These '21st-century products' have the potential to create a radical change in society by providing faster, multifunctional devices with reduced energy consumption, addressing the GCRF challenge of creating sustainable cities. To maximise societal change, it is important that the general public is engaged in the research and receptive to this change. To ensure this, the PI will undertake outreach activities to engage the general public. While the group website and blog will promote the key research results to an academic audience, she will utilise a group twitter account to promote the results to the general public. I will also produce two videos for YouTube and the group website to introduce the topics of THz spectroscopy and 2D materials to the general public. This research proposal also aims to have an impact on society by creating new British Sign Language words and signed-definitions in association with the Manchester Deaf Centre and Scottish Sensory Centre for key terms related to THz spectroscopy and 2D materials. This terms will be promoted to a wide audience via my SignScience campaign on Twitter, YouTube and website (signingscience.co.uk), which is designed to promote the use of BSL in STEM. This will not only promote accessibility in science but also form a unique way of promoting this research to the general public.


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