Ever since their discovery, electrons have been seen as elementary particles— that is that they have no substructure or component parts. Electrons are just electrons and that’s it. Only now, electrons have been observed decaying into two halves, which makes scientists rethink how electrons are made.
The electrons split into two separate parts, each carrying a particular property of the electron. In layman’s terms? The first, called a “spinon” carries its spin—which causes electrons to behave a bit like compass point. The second, called an “orbiton” carries its orbital moment—that’s what keeps electrons moving around the nucleus of atoms. The result is reported in this week’s issue of Nature. Jeroen van den Brink, one of the researchers, explains:
“It had been known for some time that, in particular materials, an electron can in principle be split, but until now the empirical evidence for this separation into independent spinons and orbitons was lacking. Now that we know where exactly to look for them, we are bound to find these new particles in many more materials.”
The observations were made in the copper-oxide compound Sr2CuO3, a material peculiar because the particles in it are constrained to move only in one direction, either forwards or backwards. The electron-splitting was measured using X-rays to measure the energy and momentum of particles in the material.
Though the electrons can split, the resulting two parts can’t escape the material in which they are produced. Regardless of that, the finding should transform our understanding of superconductivity—and could even eventually make high-temperature superconductivity a real possibility.
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