Topological insulators (TIs) host exotic physics that could shed new light on the fundamental laws of nature. What's more, the unusual properties of TIs hold tremendous promise for technological applications, including in quantum computing, next-generation miniaturized data storage, and spintronics. Scientists around the globe are working to understand the microscopic properties of these materials that freely conduct electricity along their edges even though their bulk is an insulator.
Now a team of experimental physicists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have made the first observation of a specific type of TI that's inducedbydisorder. Professor Bryce Gadway and his graduate students Eric Meier and Alex An used atomic quantum simulation, an experimental technique employing finely tuned lasers and ultracold atoms about a billion times colder than room temperature, to mimic the physical properties of one-dimensional electronic wires with precisely tunable disorder. The system starts with trivial topology just outside the regime of a topological insulator; adding disorder nudges the system into the nontrivial topological phase.