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.

Find out more answers to questions LSA Public Relations Representative Brittany Smith posed to Eric Spanton by reading here.