Determining the nature of the electronic phases that compete with superconductivity in high-transition-temperature (high-Tc) superconductors is one of the deepest problems in condensed matter physics. One candidate is the ‘stripe’ phase1,2,3, in which the charge carriers (holes) condense into rivers of charge that separate regions of antiferromagnetism. A related but lesser known system is the ‘spin ladder’, which consists of two coupled chains of magnetic ions forming an array of rungs. A doped ladder can be thought of as a high-Tc material with lower dimensionality, and has been predicted to exhibit both superconductivity4,5,6 and an insulating ‘hole crystal’4,7,8 phase in which the carriers are localized through many-body interactions. The competition between the two resembles that believed to operate between stripes and superconductivity in high-Tc materials9. Here we report the existence of a hole crystal in the doped spin ladder of Sr14Cu24O41 using a resonant X-ray scattering technique10. This phase exists without a detectable distortion in the structural lattice, indicating that it arises from many-body electronic effects. Our measurements confirm theoretical predictions4,7,8, and support the picture that proximity to charge ordered states is a general property of superconductivity in copper oxides.
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We acknowledge J. Grazul and M. Sergent for help with sample polishing, and I. Affleck, J. B. Marston, Y.-J. Kim, P. M. Platzman, J. M. Tranquada, A. Tsvelik and T. M. Rice for discussions. This work was supported by the US Department of Energy, NWO (Dutch Science Foundation), and FOM (Netherlands Organization for Fundamental Research on Matter).
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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Excess specific heat from the gapped sliding phonon modes in the incommensurate composite crystal Sr14Cu24O41
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