How a physics discovery 85 years in the making could change how we build electronics

Researchers at Princeton University have observed the Weyl fermion, a massless particle first theorized 85 years ago. Here's how the discovery could change the way we make electronics.

The team of researchers behind the Weyl fermion discovery.
Image: Danielle Alio/Princeton University

In 1929 a physicist and mathematician named Hermann Weyl proposed Weyl fermions, a massless particle that also carried an electric charge. Because of their nature, it was believed that Weyl fermions could greatly improve energy flow in electronics.

More than 85 years after its initial proposal, the first observation of Weyl fermions has occurred. A team of scientists from around the world, led by Princeton University, made the discovery and published the results in the journal Science on July 16 in a paper titled "Discovery of Weyl fermions and topological Fermi arcs."

Modern electronics are built upon the electron which, if you remember from your physics class, carries a negative charge and is also categorized as a fermion. A fermion is a particle that subscribes to the Fermi-Dirac statistics in the way it interacts and behaves.

Top: A detector image shows the existence of Weyl fermions. Bottom: A schematic shows how the particles behave in a crystal.
Image: Princeton University

Weyl fermions, however, are different in that they have no mass and are more mobile — the particle spins in the same direction it's moving. This means Weyl fermions could transport particles more efficiently, and with more stability, than electrons.

Researchers found that Weyl fermions behave as a combination of both monopole- and anti monopole-like particles. What this means is that two Weyl particles with opposite charges can still move independently of one another.

One of the biggest finds is that, using Weyl fermions, the researchers will be able to create fast-moving electrons with no risk of backscattering, or loss of electrons in a collision. Backscattering makes electronics less efficient and creates heat. Weyl electrons are able to avoid collisions and eliminate backscattering.

Essentially, what this means is that the Weyl fermions could provide a better flow of electricity and assist in the creation of more powerful and efficient electronics, especially in computers.

The Weyl fermion discovery itself is interesting because it was discovered in a synthetic metallic crystal called tantalum arsenide which was designed by the Princeton researchers in collaboration with other scientists around the world. Because of this, the Weyl fermion can potentially be reproduced and applied.

Originally proposed as an alternate theory to Einstein's theory of relativity, the Weyl fermion has eluded scientists for decades. Now that it has been observed, the particle could upend the way we produce powerful electronics.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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