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n the world of materials science, sometimes main discoveries can be found in unexpected places. While working on the resistivity of a type of delafossite—PdCoO2—researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Quantum Materials discovered that the electrons in their sample did not behave entirely as expected. When a magnetic field was applied, the electrons retained signatures of their wave-like nature, which could be observed even under relatively high temperature conditions and appeared in relatively large sizes. These surprising results, obtained in collaboration with several research institutions, could prove useful, for example in the quest for quantum computing. The research will be published today in the prestigious journal Science.

To grasp the significance of this discovery, we need to imagine ourselves on the tiny scale of atoms. At that scale, we see that metals—even though we normally think of them as quite dense—actually consist of a great many empty spaces around the atoms. When electrons move in these interstitial spaces, they have a twofold nature, behaving both as particles and as waves. Usually their movements in a metal wire are captured well by their particle-like aspects, since their wave-like nature is far too faint and masked by various other interactions. Only under highly specific laboratory conditions, particularly at very low temperatures, experiments by Richard Webb and coworkers had famously uncovered the wave character of electrons in metals.

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Category: Science