An International Team of Scientists Uncovered Exotic Quantum Properties Hidden in Magnetite


New Type of Coupled Electronic-Structural Waves Discovered in Magnetite



An international team of scientists uncovered exotic quantum properties hidden in magnetite, the oldest magnetic material known to mankind. The study reveals the existence of low-energy waves that indicate the important role of electronic interactions with the crystal lattice. This is another step to fully understand the metal-insulator phase transition mechanism in magnetite, and in particular to learn about the dynamical properties and critical behavior of this material in the vicinity of the transition temperature.


Magnetite (FeO4) is a common mineral, whose strong magnetic properties were already known in ancient Greece. Initially, it was used mainly in compasses, and later in many other devices, such as data recording tools. It is also widely applied to catalytic processes. Even animals benefit from the properties of magnetite in detecting magnetic fields – for example, birds are known to use it in navigation.


Physicists are also very interested in magnetite because around a temperature of 125 K it shows an exotic phase transition, named after the Dutch chemist Verwey. This Verwey transition was also the first phase metal-to-insulator transformation observed historically. During this extremely complex process, the electrical conductivity changes by as much as two orders of magnitude and a rearrangement of the crystal structure takes place. Verwey proposed a transformation mechanism based on the location of electrons on iron ions, which leads to the appearance of a periodic spatial distribution of Fe2+ and Fe3+ charges at low temperatures.


In recent years, structural studies and advanced calculations have confirmed the Verwey hypothesis, while revealing a much more complex pattern of charge distribution (16 non-equivalent positions of iron atoms) and proving the existence of orbital order. The fundamental components of this charge-orbital ordering are polarons – quasiparticles formed as a result of a local deformation of the crystal lattice caused by the electrostatic interaction of a charged particle (electron or hole) moving in the crystal. In the case of magnetite, the polarons take the form of trimerons, complexes made of three iron ions, where the inner atom has more electrons than the two outer atoms.


The new study, published in the journal Nature Physics, was carried out by scientists from many leading research centers around the world. Its purpose was to experimentally uncover the excitations involved in the charge-orbital order of magnetite and describe them by means of advanced theoretical methods. The experimental part was performed at MIT (Edoardo Baldini, Carina Belvin, Ilkem Ozge Ozel, Nuh Gedik); magnetite samples were synthesized at the AGH University of Science and Technology (Andrzej Kozlowski); and the theoretical analyses were carried out in several places: the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (Przemyslaw Piekarz, Krzysztof Parlinski), the Jagiellonian University and the Max Planck Institute (Andrzej M. Oles), the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (José Lorenzana), Northeastern University (Gregory Fiete), the University of Texas at Austin (Martin Rodriguez-Vega), and the Technical University in Ostrava (Dominik Legut).