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Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the US have reconstructed a representation of the electron’s wave nature – its Bloch wavefunction – in a laboratory experiment for the first time. The work could have applications in the design and development of next-generation electronic and optoelectronic devices.

Like all matter, electrons behave as both particles and waves. One of the main goals of condensed-matter physics is to understand how the wavelike motion of electrons through periodically-arranged atoms give rise to the electronic and optical properties of crystalline materials. Having such an understanding is especially important when designing devices that take advantage of the electron’s wavelike nature, explains Joseph Costello, who co-led the UC Santa Barbara team together with Seamus O’Hara, Mark Sherwin and Qile Wu.

The electron’s wavelike motion is described mathematically by a so-called Bloch wavefunction. Named after the 20th-century physicist Felix Bloch, who was the first to describe the behaviour of electrons in crystalline solids, these wavefunctions are complex – that is, they have both real and imaginary components. For this reason, the value of an electron’s Bloch wavefunction cannot be measured directly.

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