For most people going through the motions of everyday life, electrons are probably not top of mind. For LSA 2020 Collegiate Fellow Eric Spanton, electrons are everywhere—and their intriguing oddities are accessible to anyone using nothing more than Scotch tape and a curious mind.
Spanton investigates the ways electrons behave, especially in strange situations such as extremely low temperatures or high magnetic fields. Through their work, Spanton hopes to develop devices that can provide a better understanding of why electrons move through certain materials the way they do.
Spanton spoke with LSA about the role electrons play in a technology-centric culture and their commitment to teaching physics in a more applicable and accessible way.
LSA: You look at electron behavior in weird situations. Can you talk more about your research and what a “weird” situation is?
Eric Spanton: The goal of my research is to make devices that enable electrons to behave in new ways and design experiments to demonstrate that novel electron behavior. I’m interested in devices made using mechanical exfoliation (or, more colloquially, “Scotch tape exfoliation”). We use tape to peel atomic layers off of a crystal, which results in ultrathin flakes. For example, using graphite (pencil lead) and Scotch tape, it is actually quite easy to realize an atomically perfect, single layer of carbon atoms called graphene. We then take those layers and assemble them into new types of electronic devices.
We are familiar with how electrons behave in everyday situations, even if we aren’t thinking about them specifically. Metals are good conductors of electricity and heat because some of their electrons are free to move around, which is why we use them in electrical wiring and in pots and pans. In materials like plastic and wood, all the electrons are tightly bound to their atoms, and those materials do not conduct electricity or heat very well. The aim of my research is to find new ways that electrons behave by putting them in “weird situations,” using exfoliation to make new types of devices and materials for electrons to live in, and studying those materials in environments way beyond what we experience in everyday life, including high magnetic fields and ultra-low temperatures.
All of this is done to accentuate two electron properties. The first is their quantum mechanical nature, meaning that electrons aren’t really tiny balls with negative electrical charge—they behave both as particles and waves. The second is that they can behave collectively. Electrons that are “talking to each other” rather than behaving independently can work together to create some really striking phenomena. When these conditions are met, electrons can pair up and conduct electricity with zero energy lost, can cause the material to levitate in an applied magnetic field, and can even act as though they have a fraction of their original electrical charge.
LSA: How does understanding electron behavior impact our everyday lives?
ES: In addition to enhancing our fundamental knowledge of the quantum physics of many particles, studying electrons in materials has led to incredible technological discoveries. A class of materials called superconductors was discovered by physicists to host paired electrons and allow electricity to flow with no resistance. Superconducting materials are used in a number of applications, such as MRI scanners and cell phone towers. Most strikingly, scientists who studied electrons in semiconducting devices invented the transistor, which underlies all modern computers and mobile electronics.
The first transistor required electrical contacts made by hand, using a razor blade. The device was around a centimeter in size; that same space can fit a billion modern transistors operating a billion times as fast. In many ways, the devices we make are a lot closer to the first transistor than to a device that goes in your phone. The hope is that the physics we investigate using these experimental devices will help us learn more about electron physics and maybe even serve as device prototypes for applications, such as quantum computation, in the future.
LSA: For students who may not be physics-savvy or may feel intimidated by physics, why should this research matter to them?
ES: I hope that my research can help make what a physicist does a little bit less mysterious. The central technique of studying these types of devices—the exfoliation of atomically thin flakes with tape—is both a Nobel Prize-winning idea and something that almost any student could learn to do in an afternoon. I hope the fact that one of the most studied materials in physics today is manufactured with such a humble and accessible technique can make students feel a bit more connected to cutting-edge physics research.
LSA: One of your interests is making STEM more inclusive and accessible. Why is this so important to you and how are you committed to addressing it?
ES: I really enjoy the science I get to work on and I think engaging with science on any academic level can be incredibly rewarding. People who want to have those experiences should be able to, and the barriers that prevent it should be removed.
Selfishly, I also know that a more diverse group of people working on problems leads to more creative solutions, and the story of physics advancement often starts with people coming out of left field with ideas or pushing hard on a problem that others had given up on.
The question of how best to make physics more accessible and inclusive is a lot more complex and involves systemic issues much larger than physics. Unfortunately, academia—and physics in particular—often works to amplify these issues rather than try to solve them. My short-term approach is to make sure that the spaces where I have the most direct control, such as the classroom and my research group, are inclusive. The majority of people’s first and last encounters with physics are in a classroom, so I think it is incredibly important to develop courses that present physics in alternative ways, inspire curiosity, and don’t leave the majority of students thinking, “Well, I guess physics isn’t for me.” The reputation of physics being one of the hardest subjects is not a badge of honor: It’s a failure of pedagogy.
My love of physics didn’t fully blossom until I was able to get my hands on my own experiments, and I think a lot of great potential physicists are discouraged before getting to that point. They’re not aware that the opportunity to do research is open to them, or are unable to conduct research because of finances or other access issues. Creating accessible research opportunities by making them paid, providing proper healthcare and family care for graduate researchers and postdocs, and recognizing the importance of work-life balance are all solutions that immediately open physics research to a much wider group of people.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows Program is one of the most unique and innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching and/or engagement.