Using one of the most powerful research magnets in the world, researchers have isolated signs of electrical current flowing along the surface of a topological insulator—an exotic material with promising electrical properties.

SmB6 has been studied for a number of years and its observed behavior had presented investigators with a conflicting set of observations that resisted explanation until recently. The observation of quantum oscillations by Li et. al. in what is a bulk insulator confirm that SmB6 becomes a topological insulator at low temperatures. A topological insulator is a material that develops a unique quantum mechanical state on its surface, which allows electrons to flow in a fashion similar to a metal.

New research published this week in Nature Physics explores a material that could play a key role in realizing spin-based electronics.

The work by Chen et. al. explores the quantum hall effect (QHE) that develops in BiSbTeSe2 at low temperatures and high magnetic fields. BiSbTeSe2 is a topological insulator, meaning it is a bulk insulating material that at low temperatures develops a quantum mechanical state that allows conduction of electrons at the surface similar to a metal. The observation of the QHE in BiSbTeSe2 is further confirmation of the theory governing these unique materials.

A superconducting ground state has been observed at T < 3.8 K in copper-doped Bi2Se3 single crystals. Topological superconductivity is predicted in this material, assuming the superconducting electrons follow the linear energy-momentum dispersion (Dirac-like) seen in graphene and other materials of current interest. However, this presumption had not yet been confirmed by quantum oscillation measurements.

At the National MagLab, scientists have been experimenting for years on materials first dreamed up by the newest physics Nobel laureates decades ago.