Superconductors are used in a wide range of domains, from medical applications to a central role in quantum computers. Superconductivity is caused by specially linked pairs of electrons known as Cooper pairs. So far, the occurrence of Cooper pairs has been measured indirectly macroscopically in bulk, but a new technique developed by researchers at Aalto University and Oak Ridge National Laboratories in the US can detect their occurrence with atomic precision.
Electrons can quantum tunnel across energy barriers, jumping from one system to another through space in a way that cannot be explained with classical physics. For example, if an electron pairs with another electron right at the point where a metal and superconductor meet, it could form a Cooper pair that enters the superconductor while also “kicking back” another kind of particle into the metal in a process known as Andreev reflection. The researchers looked for these Andreev reflections to detect Cooper pairs.
To do this, they measured the electrical current between an atomically sharp metallic tip and a superconductor, as well as how the current depended on the separation between the tip and the superconductor. This enabled them to detect the amount of Andreev reflection going back to the superconductor, while maintaining an imaging resolution comparable to individual atoms. The results of the experiment corresponded exactly to Lado’s theoretical model.
This experimental detection of Cooper pairs at the atomic scale provides an entirely new method for understanding quantum materials. For the first time, researchers can uniquely determine how the wave functions of Cooper pairs are reconstructed at the atomic scale and how they interact with atomic-scale impurities and other obstacles.
The paper has been published in Nano Letters.