The amazing electrons that let nothing stand in their way (with a little help from antimony)

Even the most minuscule, atom-sized surface imperfections can pose colossal obstacles for the speedy flow of electrons. But certain substances create a remarkable condition where the electrons are able to completely ignore these pitfalls and move ultra-fast.

On most surfaces, tiny imperfections are like gigantic cliffs to electrons, which can become temporarily trapped and jam up the proper flow of the particles. For circuits that process information using electron flow, that's a major problem that needs to be carefully guarded against, which limits their maximum potential performance.

However, recent theories hold that certain compounds that contain the element antimony (or other elements with very similar chemical properties, but antimony works best) would provide electrons an essentially smooth surface. Although these nano-sized cliffs and crevasses would still exist, antimony helps create a special form of electron wave that allows the electrons to effortlessly flow around any possible imperfection.

Princeton physicist Ali Yazdani, who discovered this remarkable property, explains the potential applications of this discovery:

"Material imperfections just cannot trap these surface electrons. This demonstration suggests that surface conduction in these compounds may be useful for high-current transmission even in the presence of atomic scale irregularities — an electronic feature sought to efficiently interconnect nanoscale devices."

Antimony has a long history of practical use, but its strange properties with regards to surface conduction had been ignored until now. Admittedly, it's only recently become possible to even study how electrons flow at just the surface, requiring the development of incredibly precise techniques able to visualize surface electrons. Antimony is one of the so-called "topological" materials, which are able to give surface electrons these unique, free-flowing properties.

[Nature]