Irish-led physics team finds way to make electrons ‘fatter’ at will

29 Aug 2016

An international team of researchers – including a team from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) – has discovered what it is calling a breakthrough in fundamental physics that allows it to turn the mass of an object on or off at will.

The reasoning behind the physics of this latest breakthrough is still mystifying the researchers, led by Prof Stefano Sanvito, a principal investigator at TCD’s AMBER centre and the CRANN Institute.

After some experimentation with an exotic mineral, the team was astonished to find that, with help from an external stimulus, the object’s electron mass could be switched on or off like a light switch.

Marking the first discovery of an object whose mass can be switched on or off, it’s hoped that this will mark the starting point for new work in high-energy physics.

According to the team’s research paper, published in Nature Communications earlier this month, they had wanted to examine what happened to the current passing through the exotic material zirconium pentatelluride (ZrTe5) when exposed to a very high magnetic field.

ZrTe5 is quite unique in the sense that, in the absence of a magnetic field, the current flows easily through the mineral because the electrons responsible for the current have no mass.

Yet when a magnetic field of 60 Tesla is applied – more than 1m-times more intense than our own planet’s magnetic field – the current drastically reduces, resulting in ZrTe5 acquiring mass because of ‘fattening’ electrons.

Could be used for sophisticated sensors

That is about as far as the team have gotten with its research into the strange phenomenon, but Sanvito has said that “like any fundamental discovery in physics, the importance is in its discovery”.

“We have demonstrated for the first time one way in which mass can be generated in a material,” he continued.

“In principle, the external stimulus that enabled this, the magnetic field, could be replaced with some other stimulus and perhaps applied long-term in the development of more sophisticated sensors or actuators.”

This marks the third joint publication between TCD and Prof Faxian Xiu at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Molecules image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic