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Scanning tunnelling microscopy imaging of symmetry-breaking structural distortion in the bismuth-based cuprate superconductors


A complicating factor in unravelling the theory of high-temperature (high-Tc) superconductivity is the presence of a ‘pseudogap’ in the density of states, the origin of which has been debated since its discovery1. Some believe the pseudogap is a broken symmetry state distinct from superconductivity2,3,4, whereas others believe it arises from short-range correlations without symmetry breaking5,6. A number of broken symmetries have been imaged and identified with the pseudogap state7,8, but it remains crucial to disentangle any electronic symmetry breaking from the pre-existing structural symmetry of the crystal. We use scanning tunnelling microscopy to observe an orthorhombic structural distortion across the cuprate superconducting Bi2Sr2Can−1CunO2n+4+x (BSCCO) family tree, which breaks two-dimensional inversion symmetry in the surface BiO layer. Although this inversion-symmetry-breaking structure can impact electronic measurements, we show from its insensitivity to temperature, magnetic field and doping, that it cannot be the long-sought pseudogap state. To detect this picometre-scale variation in lattice structure, we have implemented a new algorithm that will serve as a powerful tool in the search for broken symmetry electronic states in cuprates, as well as in other materials.

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Figure 1: Crystal structure and surface topographies of Bi-based cuprates.
Figure 2: BiO lattice in real and momentum space.
Figure 3: Orthorhombic distortion as a function of doping, temperature and magnetic field.
Figure 4: Orthorhombic domain boundary.


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We are grateful for fruitful conversations with E. Berg, A. Damascelli, J.C. Davis, S. Kivelson, D-H. Lee, F. Massee, J. Orenstein, S. Sachdev and C. Varma. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NSF Career, Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE) and Research Corporation. Work at Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the US Department of Energy. T.L.W. acknowledges support from a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate fellowship.

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STM measurements were done by M.C.B., K.C., W.D.W., Y.Y., M.Z., T.L.W., E.J.M, A.P. and I.Z. Samples were grown by T.K., T.T., H.I., J.W., Z.X. and G.D.G. Data analysis was carried out by I.Z., E.J.M. and T.L.W., who also wrote the paper with E.W.H. and J.E.H.

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Correspondence to Jennifer E. Hoffman.

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Zeljkovic, I., Main, E., Williams, T. et al. Scanning tunnelling microscopy imaging of symmetry-breaking structural distortion in the bismuth-based cuprate superconductors. Nature Mater 11, 585–589 (2012).

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