Academic Commons

Theses Doctoral

Quantum phase transitions and local magnetism in Mott insulators: A local probe investigation using muons, neutrons, and photons

Frandsen, Benjamin Allen

Mott insulators are materials in which strong correlations among the electrons induce an unconventional insulating state. Rich interplay between the structural, magnetic, and electronic degrees of freedom resulting from the electron correlation can lead to unusual complexity of Mott materials on the atomic scale, such as microscopically heterogeneous phases or local structural correlations that deviate significantly from the average structure. Such behavior must be studied by suitable experimental techniques, i.e. "local probes", that are sensitive to this local behavior rather than just the bulk, average properties. In this thesis, I will present results from our studies of multiple families of Mott insulators using two such local probes: muon spin relaxation (muSR), a probe of local magnetism; and pair distribution function (PDF) analysis of x-ray and neutron total scattering, a probe of local atomic structure. In addition, I will present the development of magnetic pair distribution function analysis, a novel method for studying local magnetic correlations that is highly complementary to the muSR and atomic PDF techniques.
We used muSR to study the phase transition from Mott insulator to metal in two archetypal Mott insulating systems: RENiO₃ (RE = rare earth element) and V₂O₃. In both of these systems, the Mott insulating state can be suppressed by tuning a nonthermal parameter, resulting in a "quantum" phase transition at zero temperature from the Mott insulating state to a metallic state. In RENiO₃, this occurs through variation of the rare-earth element in the chemical composition; in V₂O₃, through the application of hydrostatic pressure. Our results show that the metallic and Mott insulating states unexpectedly coexist in phase-separated regions across a large portion of parameter space near the Mott quantum phase transition and that the magnitude of the ordered antiferromagnetic moment remains constant across the phase diagram until it is abruptly destroyed at the quantum phase transition. Taken together, these findings point unambiguously to a first-order quantum phase transition in these systems. We also conducted x-ray and neutron PDF experiments, which suggest that the distinct atomic structures associated with the insulating and metallic phases similarly coexist near the quantum phase transition. These results have significant implications for our understanding of the Mott metal-insulator quantum phase transition in real materials.
The second part of this thesis centers on the derivation and development of the magnetic pair distribution function (mPDF) technique and its application to the antiferromagnetic Mott insulator MnO. The atomic PDF method involves Fourier transforming the x-ray or neutron total scattering intensity from reciprocal space into real space to directly reveal the local atomic correlations in a material, which may deviate significantly from the average crystallographic structure of that material. Likewise, the mPDF method involves Fourier transforming the magnetic neutron total scattering intensity to probe the local correlations of magnetic moments in the material, which may exist on short length scales even when the material has no long-range magnetic order. After deriving the fundamental mPDF equations and providing a proof-of-principle by recovering the known magnetic structure of antiferromagnetic MnO, we used this technique to investigate the short-range magnetic correlations that persist well into the paramagnetic phase of MnO. By combining the mPDF measurements with ab initio calculations of the spin-spin correlation function in paramagnetic MnO, we were able to quantitatively account for the observed mPDF. We also used the mPDF data to evaluate competing ab initio theories, thereby resolving some longstanding questions about the magnetic exchange interactions in MnO.


  • thumnail for Frandsen_columbia_0054D_13282.pdf Frandsen_columbia_0054D_13282.pdf binary/octet-stream 29.7 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Uemura, Yasutomo
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 26, 2016