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Unexpected edge conduction in mercury telluride quantum wells under broken time-reversal symmetry
(2015)

The realization of quantum spin Hall effect in HgTe quantum wells is considered a milestone in the discovery of topological insulators. Quantum spin Hall states are predicted to allow current flow at the edges of an insulating bulk, as demonstrated in various experiments. A key prediction yet to be experimentally verified is the breakdown of the edge conduction under broken time-reversal symmetry. Here we first establish a systematic framework for the magnetic field dependence of electrostatically gated quantum spin Hall devices. We then study edge conduction of an inverted quantum well device under broken time-reversal symmetry using microwave impedance microscopy, and compare our findings to a noninverted device. At zero magnetic field, only the inverted device shows clear edge conduction in its local conductivity profile, consistent with theory. Surprisingly, the edge conduction persists up to 9 T with little change. This indicates physics beyond simple quantum spin Hall model, including material-specific properties and possibly many-body effects.

Strained bulk HgTe is a three-dimensional topological insulator, whose surface electrons have a high mobility (~ 30 000 cm\(^2\)=Vs), while its bulk is effectively free of mobile charge carriers. These properties enable a study of transport through its unconventional surface states without being hindered by a parallel bulk conductance. Here, we show transport experiments on HgTe-based Josephson junctions to investigate the appearance of the predicted Majorana states at the interface between a topological insulator and a superconductor. Interestingly, we observe a dissipationless supercurrent flow through the topological surface states of HgTe. The current-voltage characteristics are hysteretic at temperatures below 1 K, with critical supercurrents of several microamperes. Moreover, we observe a magnetic-field-induced Fraunhofer pattern of the critical supercurrent, indicating a dominant \(2\pi\)-periodic Josephson effect in the unconventional surface states. Our results show that strained bulk HgTe is a promising material system to get a better understanding of the Josephson effect in topological surface states, and to search for the manifestation of zero-energy Majorana states in transport experiments.

The discovery of the quantum spin Hall (QSH) state, and topological insulators in general, has sparked strong experimental efforts. Transport studies of the quantum spin Hall state have confirmed the presence of edge states, showed ballistic edge transport in micron-sized samples, and demonstrated the spin polarization of the helical edge states. While these experiments have confirmed the broad theoretical model, the properties of the QSH edge states have not yet been investigated on a local scale. Using scanning gate microscopy to perturb the QSH edge states on a submicron scale, we identify well-localized scattering sites which likely limit the expected nondissipative transport in the helical edge channels. In the micron-sized regions between the scattering sites, the edge states appear to propagate unperturbed, as expected for an ideal QSH system, and are found to be robust against weak induced potential fluctuations.

We report magnetotransport studies on a gated strained HgTe device. This material is a three-dimensional topological insulator and exclusively shows surface-state transport. Remarkably, the Landau-level dispersion and the accuracy of the Hall quantization remain unchanged over a wide density range (3×1011 cm−2<n<2×1012 cm−2). These observations imply that even at large carrier densities, the transport is surface-state dominated, where bulk transport would have been expected to coexist already. Moreover, the density dependence of the Dirac-type quantum Hall effect allows us to identify the contributions from the individual surfaces. A k⋅p model can describe the experiments but only when assuming a steep band bending across the regions where the topological surface states are contained. This steep potential originates from the specific screening properties of Dirac systems and causes the gate voltage to influence the position of the Dirac points rather than that of the Fermi level.

Recently a new state of matter was discovered in which the bulk insulating state in a material is accompanied by conducting surface or edge states. This new state of matter can be distinguished from a conventional insulator phase by the topological properties of its band structure which led to the name "topological insulators". Experimentally, topological insulator states are mostly found in systems characterized by a band inversion compared to conventional systems. In most topological insulator systems, this is caused by a combination of energetically close bands and spin orbit coupling. Such properties are found in systems with heavy elements like Hg and Bi. And indeed, the first experimental discovery of a topological insulator succeeded in HgTe quantum wells and later also in BiSb bulk systems.
Topological insulators are of large interest due to their unique properties: In 2-dimensional topological insulators one dimensional edge states form without the need of an external magnetic field (in contrast to the quantum Hall effect). These edge states feature a linear band dispersion, a so called Dirac dispersion. The quantum spin Hall states are helical edge states, which means they consist of counterpropagating oppositely spin polarized edge channels. They are therefore of great potential for spintronic applications as well as building blocks for new more exotic states like Majorana Fermions. 3-dimensional topological insulators feature 2-dimensional surface states with only one Dirac band (also called Dirac cone) on each surface and an interesting spin texture where spin and momentum are locked perpendicular to each other in the surface plane. This unique surface band structure is predicted to be able to host several exotic states like e.g. Majorana Fermions (in combination with superconductors) and magnetic monopole like excitations.
This PhD thesis will summarize the discovery of topological insulators and highlights the developments on their experimental observations. The work focuses on HgTe which is up to now the only topological insulator material where the expected properties are unambiguously demonstrated in transport experiments. In HgTe, the topological insulator properties arise from the inversion of the Gamma_6 and Gamma_8 bands. The band inversion in HgTe is due to a combination of a high spin orbit splitting in Te and large energy corrections (due to the mass-velocity term) to the energy levels in Hg. Bulk HgTe, however, is a semimetal, which means for the conversion into a topological insulator a band gap has to be opened. In two dimensions (HgTe quantum well structures) this is achieved via quantum confinement, which opens a band gap between the quantum well subbands. In three dimensions, strain is used to lift the degeneracy of the semimetallic Gamma_8 bands opening up a band gap.
The thesis is structured as follows:
- The first chapter of this thesis will give a brief overview on discoveries in the field of topological insulators. It focuses on works relevant to experimental results presented in the following chapters. This includes a short outline of the early predictions and a summary of important results concerning 2-dimensional topological insulators while the final section discusses observations concerning 3-dimensional topological insulators.
- The discovery of the quantum spin Hall effect in HgTe marked the first experimental observation of a topological insulator. Chapter 2 will focus on HgTe quantum wells and the quantum spin Hall effect.
Above a critical thickness, HgTe quantum wells are predicted to host the quantum spin Hall state, the signature of a 2-dimensional topological insulator. HgTe quantum wells exhibiting low carrier concentrations and at the same time high carrier mobilities are required to be able to measure the quantum spin Hall effect. The growth of such high quality HgTe quantum wells was one of the major goals for this work. Continuous optimization of the substrate preparation and growth conditions resulted in controlled carrier densities down to a few 10^10 cm^-2. At the same time, carrier mobilities exceeding 1 x 10^6 cm^2/Vs have been achieved, which provides mean free paths of several micrometers in the material. Thus the first experimental evidence for the existence of the quantum spin Hall edge states succeeded in transport experiments on microstructures: When the Fermi energy was located in the bulk band gap a residual quantized resistance of 2e^2/h was found. Further experiments focused on investigating the nature of transport in this regime. By non-local measurements the edge state character could be established. The measured non-local resistances corresponded well with predictions from the Landauer-Büttiker theory applied to transport in helical edge channels.
In a final set of experiments the spin polarization of the edge channels was investigated. Here, we could make use of the advantage that HgTe quantum well structures exhibit a large Rashba spin orbit splitting. In systems with a large Rashba spin orbit splitting a spin accumulation is expected to occur at the edge of the sample perpendicular to a current flow. This so-called spin Hall effect was then used as a spin injector and detector. Using split gate devices it was possible to bring spin Hall and quantum spin Hall state into direct contact, which enabled an all electrical detection of the spin polarization of the quantum spin Hall edge channels.
- HgTe as a 3-dimensional topological insulator will be presented in chapter 3. Straining the HgTe layer enables the observation of topological insulator behavior. It was found that strain can be easily implemented during growth by using CdTe substrates. CdTe has a slightly larger lattice constant than HgTe and therefore leads to tensile strain in the HgTe layer as long as the growth is pseudomorphic. Magnetotransport studies showed the emergence of quantum Hall transport with characteristic signatures of a Dirac type bandstructure. Thus, this result marks the first observation of the quantum Hall effect in the surface states of a 3-dimensional topological insulator.
Transport experiments on samples fitted with a top gate enabled the identification of contributions from individual surfaces. Furthermore, the surface state quantum Hall effect was found to be surprisingly stable, perturbations due to additional bulk transport could not be found, even at high carrier densities of the system.
- Chapters 4 - 6 serve as in depth overviews of selected works: Chapter 4 presents a detailed overview on the all electrical detection of the spin Hall effect in HgTe quantum wells. The detection of the spin polarization of the quantum spin Hall effect is shown in chapter 5 and chapter 6 gives a detailed overview on the quantum Hall effect originating from the topological surface state in strained bulk HgTe.
The investigations discussed in this thesis pioneered the experimental work on the transport properties of topological insulator systems. The understanding of the fundamental properties of topological insulators enables new experiments in which e.g. the inclusion of magnetic dopants or the interplay between topological insulator and superconductors can be investigated in detail.