The Science

How well a material conducts electricity from a power plant to your home depends in part on how electrons behave. Until now, the conventional method for studying electron energies and momenta couldn’t “see” past the surface. A new method lets scientists observe electronic states deep inside a material. For the first time, scientists can simultaneously measure the momenta and energies of subsurface electronic states in high resolution. These electronic states determine the optical and electrical properties of the material.

The Impact

Observing electronic states offers three key benefits. Scientists can use the technique to study the physics of interacting particles in previously challenging geometries. For example, a team used this approach on a technologically important structure known as a quantum well. These wells confine electron motion in only two dimensions and can be used as switches in computers. The technique is being used by scientists to identify better semiconducting materials. Further, it can be adopted to explore exotic phenomena such as the interactions underlying superconductivity.


The energy and momentum of electrons influence their motion through a material, which, in turn, determines its electrical and optical properties. Until now, angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES) has been the only means for direct determination of both the electron energies and momenta used to characterize the electronic states of a material. ARPES has provided critical data on systems such as semiconductors, high-temperature superconductors, and 2-D materials such as graphene. However, ARPES can only be used to study the properties of conducting materials at the surface and does not work in the presence of applied magnetic fields. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University have developed a new spectroscopic technique that can be used for conducting as well as insulating materials and can be used to investigate the electronic structure below the material’s surface. The technique uses a new approach, quantum mechanical tunneling, to determine the electron’s energy and momentum spectra. In this technique, electrons that are ejected from the source layer tunnel through a barrier layer only if the electronic states have momentum and energy that coincide with those in the subsurface layer that is under study. Monitoring the tunneling current provides detailed information about the subsurface electronic states. Furthermore, spectra can now be obtained from insulating samples, and the technique can be used to study the electronic structure of materials in high magnetic fields.


The work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was funded by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The work at Princeton University was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


J. Jang, H.M. Yoo, L.N. Pfeiffer, K.W. West, K.W. Baldwin, and R.C. Ashoori, “Full momentum- and energy-resolved spectral function of a 2D electronic system.” Science 358, 901 (2017). [DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7073]

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