Cavalleri and his colleagues then wanted to know whether this transport between the layers can be deliberately interrupted and switched on again. In theory this is possible if a very strong electric field is applied at right angles to the layers. However, applying such a field is impractical. “This causes the crystal to heat upand the superconductivity collapses,” explains Cavalleri. The solution was to send in an ultrashort pulse of light to manipulate the superconductor.
This so-called terahertz pulse is an electromagnetic wave, similar to light, but with a much longer wavelength. It has an electric field that briefly destroys the coupling of the electron waves between the planes when it penetrates into the crystal. This is only successful if the electric field strength of the pulse is very high, in the order of several ten thousand volts per centimetre. And it must be short enough that it does not heat up the crystal.
Only recently has it been possible to generate such extremely powerful, ultrashort terahertz pulses. This is the task of team member Matthias Hoffmann. In very simple terms, this is done by the interaction of an ultrashort laser pulse with a lithium niobate crystal. An effect which physicists call optical rectification then generates the desired terahertz radiation in the crystal.
The experiment, which Andreas Dienst designed and carried out in Oxford, succeeded as anticipated: for the short time of less than one picosecond (10-12 seconds) as the pulse interacts with the superconductor, the coupling between the planes, and thus the superconductivity, was interrupted before subsequently returning. The superconductor does not suffer in this process and can be switched as often as one likes.
“This is a very fascinating result, because we can also use this method to investigate how high-temperature superconductors work,” says Cavalleri. It is also possible that this effect additionally has real-world applications. Basically, the switchable high-temperature superconductor works in a very similar way to a conventional field-effect transistor. This is a semiconductor whose ability to pass a current can be controlled by applying an electric voltage. Analogous to this, is conceivable that the high-temperature superconductor could be used as an ultrafast, nanoelectronic transistor that is controlled by microwaves.