Around 75 years ago, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana hypothesized the existence of exotic particles that are their own antiparticles. Since then, interest in these particles, known as Majorana fermions, has grown enormously given that they could play a role in creating a quantum computer. Majoranas have already been described very well in theory. However, examining them and obtaining experimental evidence is difficult because they have to occur in pairs but are then usually bound to form one normal electron. Ingenious combinations and arrangements of various materials are therefore required to generate two Majoranas and keep them apart.
The group led by Professor Ernst Meyer has now used predictions and calculations by theoretical physicists Professor Jelena Klinovaja and Professor Daniel Loss from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the University of Basel's Department of Physics to experimentally measure states that correspond to Majoranas. On a superconductor, the researchers evaporated single iron atoms with spin that, due to the row structure of the lead atoms, arrange themselves into a minute wire comprising one row of single atoms. The wires reached an astounding length of up to 70 nanometers.
The researchers examined these mono-atomic chains with the aid of scanning tunneling microscopy and, for the first time, with an atomic force microscope as well. Using the images and measurements, they found clear indications of the existence of single Majorana fermions on the ends of the wires under certain conditions and from a specific wire length on.
Despite the distance between them, the two Majoranas on the ends of the wires are still connected. Together, they form a new state extended across the whole wire that can either be occupied ("1") or not occupied ("0") by an electron. This binary property can then serve as the basis for a quantum bit (Qubit) and means that Majoranas, which are also very robust against a number of environmental influences, are promising candidates for creating a future quantum computer.
The researchers from Basel have not only shown that single Majoranas can be generated and measured at the ends of an iron wire, they also performed the first experiment to show that Majoranas are extended quantum objects with an inner structure, as predicted by their theory colleagues. Over an area of several nanometers, the measurements showed the expected wave function with characteristic oscillations and twofold decay lengths, which have now been made visible for the first time.
Rémy Pawlak, Marcin Kisiel, Jelena Klinovaja, Tobias Meier, Shigeki Kawai, Thilo Glatzel, Daniel Loss, and Ernst Meyer are the authors of the paper titled " Probing atomic structure and Majorana wavefunctions in mono-atomic Fe chains on superconducting Pb surface " published innpj Quantum Information(2016), doi: 10.1038/npjqi.2016.35.