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Scientists have measured the subatomic intricacies of an exotic phenomenon first predicted more than 60 years ago. This so-called van Vleck magnetism is the key to harnessing the quantum quirks of topological insulators—hybrid materials that are both conducting and insulating—and could lead to unprecedented electronics.

The collaboration—including the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, MIT, and Pennsylvania State University—used cutting-edge electron microscopy facilities at Brookhaven Lab to pinpoint this never-before-seen behavior. The results were published online April 9, 2015, in the journal Physical Review Letters.

"Our experiment is the first to show conclusive evidence of van Vleck magnetism, which mediates the magnetic properties of topological insulators," said MIT and Brookhaven Lab Ph.D. student Mingda Li, lead author on the study. "Synthesis and characterization techniques have finally caught up to seminal theoretical work, and we are thrilled to have performed this groundbreaking research."

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