For First Time, Researchers Demonstrate Heat and Sound Are Magnetic

Photo: Ohio State University

Earlier this month, we reported on research demonstrating that heat propagates as a wave through graphene rather than as vibrations of atoms the way it does in 3-D materials.  In 3-D materials, the collective state of those vibrating atoms is known as phonons.

For the first time, researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) have demonstrated that acoustic phonons, which can carry both heat and sound, have magnetic properties that allow them to be manipulated with magnetism. 

In research published in the journal Nature Materials, the OSU researchers applied a magnetic field equivalent to that inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device (in this case, the magnet was reported to be fairly powerful at seven Tesla). They discovered that they could reduce the amount of heat flowing through a semiconductor by 12 percent.

“This adds a new dimension to our understanding of acoustic waves,” said Joseph Heremans, professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State, in a press release. “We’ve shown that we can steer heat magnetically. With a strong enough magnetic field, we should be able to steer sound waves, too.”

Before anyone starts thinking about the discovery’s applicability to heat management in computers, they should keep in mind that the semiconductor had to be kept at temperatures very close to absolute zero (specifically, -268 degrees Celsius) in order for the researchers to measure the movements of the phonons.

In fact, it was the complexity of taking the measurements that had prevented researchers from recognizing the magnetic properties of phonons previously. In order to take thermal measurements at such a low temperature, Hyungyu Jin, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, used the semiconductor indium antimonide and shaped it into a lopsided tuning fork in which one arm was 4 millimeters wide and the other was 1 mm wide. Then he placed a heater at the base of each arm.

At normal temperatures, the ability of the material to transfer heat would be solely dependent on the kind of atoms in the material. But near absolute zero, the ability of the material to transfer heat can be determined by the physical size of the material. In this case, the difference in the sizes of the fork arms was significant. Phonons more easily filled the wider arm.

“Imagine that the tuning fork is a track, and the phonons flowing up from the base are runners on the track,” explained Heremans in the press release. “The runners who take the narrow side of the fork barely have enough room to squeeze through, and they keep bumping into the walls of the track, which slows them down. The runners who take the wider track can run faster, because they have lots of room.”

Eventually they all end up at their respective finish lines. But the track’s geometry determines just how quickly. 

With this understanding, Jin was able to compare the temperature changes in the two fork arms. He first took the measurements without a magnet and then with one. With the magnet on, the heat flow through the larger arm slowed down by 12 percent.

Now that the researchers have measured magnetism’s effect on heat, they want to move on to see if they can use it to deflect sound waves.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
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