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Signatures of Topological Superconductors


Lee, Shu-Ping (2015) Signatures of Topological Superconductors. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z90R9MB4.


Topological superconductors are particularly interesting in light of the active ongoing experimental efforts for realizing exotic physics such as Majorana zero modes. These systems have excitations with non-Abelian exchange statistics, which provides a path towards topological quantum information processing. Intrinsic topological superconductors are quite rare in nature. However, one can engineer topological superconductivity by inducing effective p-wave pairing in materials which can be grown in the laboratory. One possibility is to induce the proximity effect in topological insulators; another is to use hybrid structures of superconductors and semiconductors.

The proposal of interfacing s-wave superconductors with quantum spin Hall systems provides a promising route to engineered topological superconductivity. Given the exciting recent progress on the fabrication side, identifying experiments that definitively expose the topological superconducting phase (and clearly distinguish it from a trivial state) raises an increasingly important problem. With this goal in mind, we proposed a detection scheme to get an unambiguous signature of topological superconductivity, even in the presence of ordinarily detrimental effects such as thermal fluctuations and quasiparticle poisoning. We considered a Josephson junction built on top of a quantum spin Hall material. This system allows the proximity effect to turn edge states in effective topological superconductors. Such a setup is promising because experimentalists have demonstrated that supercurrents indeed flow through quantum spin Hall edges. To demonstrate the topological nature of the superconducting quantum spin Hall edges, theorists have proposed examining the periodicity of Josephson currents respect to the phase across a Josephson junction. The periodicity of tunneling currents of ground states in a topological superconductor Josephson junction is double that of a conventional Josephson junction. In practice, this modification of periodicity is extremely difficult to observe because noise sources, such as quasiparticle poisoning, wash out the signature of topological superconductors. For this reason, We propose a new, relatively simple DC measurement that can compellingly reveal topological superconductivity in such quantum spin Hall/superconductor heterostructures. More specifically, We develop a general framework for capturing the junction's current-voltage characteristics as a function of applied magnetic flux. Our analysis reveals sharp signatures of topological superconductivity in the field-dependent critical current. These signatures include the presence of multiple critical currents and a non-vanishing critical current for all magnetic field strengths as a reliable identification scheme for topological superconductivity.

This system becomes more interesting as interactions between electrons are involved. By modeling edge states as a Luttinger liquid, we find conductance provides universal signatures to distinguish between normal and topological superconductors. More specifically, we use renormalization group methods to extract universal transport characteristics of superconductor/quantum spin Hall heterostructures where the native edge states serve as a lead. Interestingly, arbitrarily weak interactions induce qualitative changes in the behavior relative to the free-fermion limit, leading to a sharp dichotomy in conductance for the trivial (narrow superconductor) and topological (wide superconductor) cases. Furthermore, we find that strong interactions can in principle induce parafermion excitations at a superconductor/quantum spin Hall junction.

As we identify the existence of topological superconductor, we can take a step further. One can use topological superconductor for realizing Majorana modes by breaking time reversal symmetry. An advantage of 2D topological insulator is that networks required for braiding Majoranas along the edge channels can be obtained by adjoining 2D topological insulator to form corner junctions. Physically cutting quantum wells for this purpose, however, presents technical challenges. For this reason, I propose a more accessible means of forming networks that rely on dynamically manipulating the location of edge states inside of a single 2D topological insulator sheet. In particular, I show that edge states can effectively be dragged into the system's interior by gating a region near the edge into a metallic regime and then removing the resulting gapless carriers via proximity-induced superconductivity. This method allows one to construct rather general quasi-1D networks along which Majorana modes can be exchanged by electrostatic means.

Apart from 2D topological insulators, Majorana fermions can also be generated in other more accessible materials such as semiconductors. Following up on a suggestion by experimentalist Charlie Marcus, I proposed a novel geometry to create Majorana fermions by placing a 2D electron gas in proximity to an interdigitated superconductor-ferromagnet structure. This architecture evades several manufacturing challenges by allowing single-side fabrication and widening the class of 2D electron gas that may be used, such as the surface states of bulk semiconductors. Furthermore, it naturally allows one to trap and manipulate Majorana fermions through the application of currents. Thus, this structure may lead to the development of a circuit that enables fully electrical manipulation of topologically-protected quantum memory. To reveal these exotic Majorana zero modes, I also proposed an interference scheme to detect Majorana fermions that is broadly applicable to any 2D topological superconductor platform.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:topological superconductors
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy
Major Option:Physics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Alicea, Jason
Group:Institute for Quantum Information and Matter
Thesis Committee:
  • Alicea, Jason F. (chair)
  • Hsieh, David
  • Eisenstein, James P.
  • Motrunich, Olexei I.
Defense Date:26 May 2015
Non-Caltech Author Email:iamsteelball (AT)
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06072015-223040119
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:10337
Deposited By: Kathy Johnson
Deposited On:14 Jun 2017 16:52
Last Modified:02 Jun 2020 21:51

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