If you are, by any chance, following progress in the field of Majorana bound states, then you are for sure super excited about ample Majorana results arriving this Fall. On the other hand, if you just heard about these elusive states recently, it is time for an update. For physicists working in the field, this Fall was perhaps the most exciting time since the first experimental reports from 2012. In the last few weeks there was not only one, but at least three interesting manuscripts reporting new insightful data which may finally provide a definitive experimental verification of the existence of these states in condensed matter systems.
But before I dive into these new results, let me give a brief history on the topic of Majorana states and their experimental observation. The story starts with the young talented physicist Ettore Majorana, who hypothesized back in 1937 the existence of fermionic particles which were their own antiparticles. These hypothetical particles, now called Majorana fermions, were proposed in the context of elementary particle physics, but never observed. Some 60 years later, in the early 2000s, theoretical work emerged showing that Majorana fermionic states can exist as the quasiparticle excitations in certain low-dimensional superconducting systems (not a real particle as originally proposed, but otherwise having the exact same properties). Since then theorists have proposed half a dozen possible ways to realize Majorana modes using readily available materials such as superconductors, semiconductors, magnets, as well as topological insulators (for curious readers, I recommend manuscripts [1, 2, 3] for an overview of the different proposed methods to realize Majorana states in the lab).
The most fascinating thing about Majorana states is that they belong to the class of anyons, which means that they behave neither as bosons nor as fermions upon exchange. For example, if you have two identical fermionic (or bosonic) states and you exchange their positions, the quantum mechanical function describing the two states will acquire a phase factor of -1 (or +1). Anyons, on the other hand, can have an arbitrary phase factor eiφ upon exchange. For this reason, they are considered to be a starting point for topological quantum computation. If you want to learn more about anyons, check out the video below featuring IQIM’s Gil Refael and Jason Alicea.
Back in 2012, a group in Delft (led by Prof. Leo Kouwenhoven) announced the observation of zero-energy states in a nanoscale device consisting of a semiconductor nanowire coupled to a superconductor. These states behaved very similarly to the Majoranas that were previously predicted to occur in this system. The key word here is ‘similar’, since the behavior of these modes was not fully consistent with the theoretical predictions. Namely, the electrical conductance carried through the observed zero energy states was only about ~5% of the expected perfect transmission value for Majoranas. This part of the data was very puzzling, and immediately cast some doubts throughout the community. The physicists were quickly divided into what I will call enthusiasts (believers that these initial results indeed originated from Majorana states) and skeptics (who were pointing out that effects, other than Majoranas, can result in similarly looking zero energy peaks). And thus a great debate started.
In the coming years, experimentalists tried to observe zero energy features in improved devices, track how these features evolve with external parameters, such as gate voltages, length of the wires, etc., or focus on completely different platforms for hosting Majorana states, such as magnetic flux vortices in topological superconductors and magnetic atomic chains placed on a superconducting surface. However, these results were not enough to convince skeptics that the observed states indeed originated from the Majoranas and not some other yet-to-be-discovered phenomenon. And so, the debate continued. With each generation of the experiments some of the alternative proposed scenarios were ruled out, but the final verification was still missing.
Fast forward to the events of this Fall and the exciting recent results. The manuscript I would like to invite you to read was just posted on ArXiv a couple of weeks ago. The main result is the observation of the perfectly quantized 2e2/h conductance at zero energy, the long sought signature of the Majorana states. This quantization implies that in this latest generation of semiconducting-superconducting devices zero-energy states exhibit perfect electron-hole symmetry and thus allow for perfect Andreev reflection. These remarkable results may finally end the debate and convince most of the skeptics out there.
Figure 1. (a,b) Comparison between devices and measurements from 2012 and 2017. (a) In 2012 a device made by combining a superconductor (Niobium Titanium Nitride alloy) and Indium Antimonide nanowire resulted in the first signature of zero energy states but the conductance peak was only about 0.1 x e2/h. Adapted from Mourik et al. Science 2012. (b) Similar device from 2017 made by carefully depositing superconducting Aluminum on Indium Arsenide. The fully developed 2e2/h conductance peak was observed. Adapted from Zhang et. al. ArXiv 2017. (c) Schematics of the Andreev reflection through the Normal (N)/Superconductor (S) interface. (d,e) Alternative view of the Andreev reflection process as a tunneling through a double barrier without and with Majorana modes (shown in yellow).
To fully appreciate these results, it is useful to quickly review the physics of Andreev reflection (Fig. 1c-e) that occurs at the interface between a normal region with a superconductor . As the electron (blue) in the normal region enters a superconductor and pulls an additional electron with it to form a Copper pair, an extra hole (red) is left behind (Fig. 1(c)). You can also think about this process as the transmission through two leads, one connecting the superconductor to the electrons and the other to the holes (Fig. 1d). This allows us to view this problem as a transmission through the double barrier that is generally low. In the presence of a Majorana state, however, there is a resonant level at zero energy which is coupled with the same amplitude with both electrons and holes. This in turn results in the resonant Andreev reflection with a perfect quantization of 2e2/h (Fig. 1e). Note that, even in the configuration without Majorana modes, perfect quantization is possible but highly unlikely as it requires very careful tuning of the barrier potential (the authors did show that their quantization is robust against tuning the voltages on the gates, ruling out this possibility).
Going back to the experiments, you may wonder what made this breakthrough possible? It seems to be the combination of various factors, including using epitaxially grown superconductors and more sophisticated fabrication methods. As often happens in experimental physics, this milestone did not come from one ingenious idea, but rather from numerous technical improvements obtained by several generations of hard-working grad students and postdocs.
If you are up for more Majorana reading, you can find two more recent eye-catching manuscripts here and here. Note that the list of interesting recent Majorana papers is a mere selection by the author and not complete by any means. A few months ago, my IQIM colleagues wrote a nice blog entry about topological qubits arriving in 2018. Although this may sound overly optimistic, the recent results suggest that the field is definitely taking off. While there are certainly many challenges to be solved, we may see the next generation of experiments designed to probe control over the Majorana states quite soon. Stay tuned for more!!!!!!