Go to any condensed-matter physics meeting, and topological insulators are prominent on the agenda, and talks on the topic attract large audiences. For good reason. Topological insulators promise nothing less than a revolution in electronics. Even though as their name suggests topological insulators are electrically insulating, they are conducting on their surface. And unlike regular conductors, these surface currents flow without the electrons being thrown off the track by most (albeit not all) scattering effects from impurities. This is one of their key features that ultimately may lead to smaller and faster electronic devices.
Even though first experimental breakthroughs have been achieved since 2006 in two-dimensional (thin films) of HgTe with similar properties, the tell-tale surface currents haven’t been observed in three-dimensional topological insulators such as the widely studied Bi2Se3 and Bi2Te3. So far, samples have not reached a sufficient purity and researchers had to make do with indirect characterisation experiments rather than direct measurements of electrical transport. This has now changed. In a study published in today’s issue of Science, Robert Cava, Nai Phuan Ong and colleagues from Princeton University report on the first experiments demonstrating electron conduction on the surface of Bi2Te3.