A quantum step to a heat switch with no moving parts

June 7, 2021

A quantum step to a heat switch with no moving parts

cropped illustration

Study confirms unusual electron behavior in a quantum material

Researchers have discovered a new electronic property at the frontier between the thermal and quantum sciences in a specially engineered metal alloy – and in the process identified a promising material for future devices that could turn heat on and off with the application of a magnetic “switch.”

In this material, electrons, which have a mass in vacuum and in most other materials, move like massless photons or light – an unexpected behavior, but a phenomenon theoretically predicted to exist here. The alloy was engineered with the elements bismuth and antimony at precise ranges based on foundational theory.

Under the influence of an external magnetic field, the researchers found, these oddly behaving electrons manipulate heat in ways not seen under normal conditions. On both the hot and cold sides of the material, some of the electrons generate heat, or energy, while others absorb energy, effectively turning the material into an energy pump. The result: a 300% increase in its thermal conductivity.

Take the magnet away, and the mechanism is turned off.

“The generation and absorption form the anomaly,” said study senior author Joseph Heremans, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and Ohio Eminent Scholar in Nanotechnology at The Ohio State University. “The heat disappears and reappears elsewhere – it is like teleportation. It only happens under very specific circumstances predicted by quantum theory.”

This property, and the simplicity of controlling it with a magnet, makes the material a desirable candidate as a heat switch with no moving parts, similar to a transistor that switches electrical currents or a faucet that switches water, that could cool computers or increase the efficiency of solar-thermal power plants.

“Solid-state heat switches without moving parts are extremely desirable, but they don’t exist,” Heremans said. “This is one of the possible mechanisms that would lead to one.”

The research is published today (June 7, 2021) in the journal Nature Materials.

The bismuth-antimony alloy is among a class of quantum materials called Weyl semimetals – whose electrons don’t behave as expected. They are characterized by properties that include negatively and positively charged particles, electrons and holes, respectively, that behave as “massless” particles. Also part of a group called topological materials, their electrons react as if the material contains internal magnetic fields that enable the establishment of new pathways along which those particles move.

In physics, an anomaly – the electrons’ generation and absorption of heat discovered in this study – refers to certain symmetries that are present in the classical world but are broken in the quantum world, said study co-author Nandini Trivedi, professor of physics at Ohio State.

Read more:  Ohio State News (osu.edu) - article by Emily Caldwell

Joseph Heremans

Nandini Trivedi

The cones in this image illustrate the equations of motion of electrons when an external magnetic field is applied to the bismuth alloy engineered for the study. Green lines and purple lines represent electrons that generate and absorb energy, respectively.   Illustration by Renee Ripley