Theoretically calculated shapes (not to scale) and spatial arrangement of the electrons for FEBs. Also shown is the range of pressures where the respective FEBs are stable against small fluctuations. Image showing FEBs trapped on the vortex line and exploding.
An electron injected into a superfluid form of helium creates a single electron bubble (SEB) – a cavity that is free of helium atoms and contains only the electron. The shape of the bubble depends on the energy state of the electron. For instance, the bubble is spherical when the electron is in the ground state (1S). There are also MEBs—multiple electron bubbles that contain thousands of electrons.
FEBs, on the other hand, are nanometre-sized cavities in liquid helium containing just a handful of free electrons. The number, state and interactions between free electrons dictate the physical and chemical properties of materials. Studying FEBs, therefore, could help scientists better understand how some of these properties emerge when a few electrons present in a material interact with each other. According to the authors, understanding how FEBs are formed can also provide insights into the self-assembly of soft materials, which can be important for developing next-generation quantum materials. However, scientists have only theoretically predicted the existence of FEBs so far. “We have now experimentally observed FEBs for the first time and understood how they are created,” Yadav says. “These are nice new objects with great implications if we can create and trap them.
The researchers first applied a voltage pulse to a tungsten tip on the surface of liquid helium. Then they generated a pressure wave on the charged surface using an ultrasonic transducer. This allowed them to create 8EBs and 6EBs, two species of FEBs containing eight and six electrons respectively. These FEBs were found to be stable for at least 15 milliseconds (quantum changes typically happen at much shorter time scales) which would enable researchers to trap and study them.
There are several phenomena that FEBs can help scientists decipher, such as turbulent flows in superfluids and viscous fluids, or the flow of heat in super fluid helium. Just like how current flows without resistance in superconducting materials at very low temperatures, superfluid helium also conducts heat efficiently at very low temperatures. But defects in the system, called vortices, can lower its thermal conductivity. Since FEBs are present at the core of such vortices—as the authors have found in this study—they can help in studying how the vortices interact with each other as well as heat flowing through the superfluid helium.
In the immediate future, we would like to know if there are any other species of FEBs, and understand the mechanisms by which some are more stable than the others.”In the long term, we would like to use these FEBs as quantum simulators, for which one needs to develop new types of measurement schemes.
Neha Yadav et al, Bubbles in superfluid helium containing six and eight electrons: Soft, quantum nanomaterial, Science Advances (2021). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abi7128