A weird feature of certain exotic materials allows electrons to travel from one surface of the material to another as if there were nothing in between. Now, researchers have shown that they can switch this feature on and off by toggling a material in and out of a stable topological state with pulses of light. The method could provide a new way of manipulating materials that could be used in future quantum computers and devices that carry electric current with no loss.

Topological materials are particularly interesting for these applications because their electronic states are extraordinarily resistant to external perturbations, such as heating, mechanical pressure and material defects. But to make use of these materials, scientists also need ways to fine-tune their properties.

“Here, we’ve found an ultrafast and energy-efficient means of using light as an external perturbation to drive a material in and out of its stable topological state,” said Aaron Lindenberg, the study’s principal investigator and an associate professor at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.

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