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WASHINGTON, D.C. — One of the hottest topics in condensed matter physics is the latest manifestation of the quantum Hall effect. In this phenomenon, the electrons at the interface between two semiconducting layers, kept at cold temperatures and held exposed to a high magnetic field, will lapse into fixed-energy quantum states; the conductivity of the material comes in multiples of a basic unit.
A few years ago an elaboration of this research, an effect called the quantum Hall spin effect, showed that the spin of the electrons can produce additional interactions and that it was possible to see Hall effects even in the absence of large magnetic fields. Now, with a species of materials called topological insulators, even the low temperatures are not necessary. The material acts as if it were a metal box: an insulator on the inside and a conductor on the outside. The currents that flow are not large; this is not a material that can support the transmission of high power. But it might be able to facilitate fault-tolerant quantum computers.
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