Measuring the mass of ‘massless’ electrons

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Individual electrons in graphene are massless, but when they move together, it’s a different story.

Graphene, a one-atom-thick carbon sheet, has taken the world of physics by storm—in part, because its electrons behave as massless particles. Yet these electrons seem to have dual personalities. Phenomena observed in the field of graphene plasmonics suggest that when the electrons move collectively, they must exhibit mass.

After two years of effort, researchers led by Donhee Ham, Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and his student Hosang Yoon, Ph.D.’14, have successfully measured the collective mass of ‘massless’ electrons in motion in graphene.

By shedding light on the fundamental kinetic properties of electrons in graphene, this research may also provide a basis for the creation of miniaturized circuits with tiny, graphene-based components.

The results of Ham and Yoon’s complex measurements, performed in collaboration with other experts at Columbia University and the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan, have been published online in Nature Nanotechnology.

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