Quantum simulator for complex electronic materials

Researchers from Mainz, Cologne and Jülich simulate complex electronic insulator with ultracold atoms in artificial crystals of light


The design of new materials with specific properties is an important but demanding challenge in physics and chemistry. Already in 1982 Nobel Prize winner Richard P. Feynman therefore suggested to build a "quantum simulator" in order to understand and predict the properties of complex materials by simulating them using an artificial, but highly controllable quantum system. In the latest issue of the journal Science, researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the University of Cologne, and Forschungszentrum Jülich show how to simulate the properties of electrons in a real crystal by using ultracold fermionic atoms trapped in an artificial crystal formed by interfering laser beams, a so-called optical lattice.

The researchers succeeded in demonstrating one of the most dramatic effects of the electron-electron repulsion: When the interactions between the electrons get too strong, a metal can suddenly become insulating. The resulting so-called Mott insulator is probably the most important example of a strongly correlated state in condensed matter physics, and it is a natural starting point for the investigation of quantum magnetism. Furthermore, high temperature superconductivity is found to arise in close proximity to it. "Atoms in an optical lattice are a nearly perfect quantum simulator for electrons in a solid, as they offer a very flexible model-system in a clean and well-controlled environment," explained Ulrich Schneider of JGU.

A direct investigation of complex materials and high temperature superconductors is difficult because of the presence of disorder and many competing interactions in the real crystalline materials. "This makes it very hard to identify the role of specific interactions and, in particular, to decide whether repulsive interactions between fermions alone can explain high temperature superconductivity." In the experiment, a gas of potassium atoms is first cooled down to temperatures near absolute zero. Subsequently, an optical lattice is formed by overlapping several laser beams. To the atoms, the resulting standing-wave field appears as a regular crystal of hundreds of thousands individual micro-traps, similar to an array of optical tweezers. The ultracold atoms, which play the role of electrons in real solids, will line up at the nodes of this standing-wave field.

By investigating the behavior of the atoms under compression and increasing interaction strength, and thereby measuring their compressibility, the experimentalists led by Professor Immanuel Bloch of Mainz University have been able to controllably switch the system between metallic and insulating states of matter and find evidence for a Mott-insulating phase within the quantum gas of fermionic atoms. In such a Mott-insulating phase, the repulsive interactions between the atoms force them to order one-by-one into the regular lattice structure. The observation of the fermionic Mott insulator in the context of optical lattices opens up a new possibility to simulate and study strongly correlated states and related phenomena. This is affirmed by the excellent agreement achieved in comparing the experiment with theoretical calculations of modern condensed matter theory performed in Cologne and Jülich, which included extensive simulations on the Jülich based supercomputer system JUGENE.