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Steven Johnston_physicsIt’s rare that additional fees are welcome, but as physicist Steven Johnston and his colleagues suggest, sometimes they can actually be a pleasant surprise.

In a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, Johnston and his collaborators report on how extra energy costs associated with the movement of electrons in lithium copper oxides reveal more about these materials, and in turn help scientists better understand their electronic properties.

The researchers focused on insulators, materials that make it virtually impossible for electric current to flow. They noted that the way current moves is a key property of insulators, semiconductors, and superconductors, which could drive the electronics industry.

The scientists began with a charge transfer insulator made of lithium copper oxide. Using methods including computer modeling, they found that not only is there an electronic energy cost required for electrons to hop to oxygen sites, there also is an additional energy cost caused by movement of the material’s crystal structure, or lattice.

Johnston, assistant professor of physics, said that with any given material, understanding where it belongs is a good start for understanding its basic properties. Electrons want to move along the path of least resistance. Therefore, whichever pathway has the lower energy cost will determine how the insulator will behave when subjected to disturbances like electric fields. Read the full story on the Department of Physics and Astronomy website.