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Tuning Electrostatic Potentials for Imaging the Quantum Properties of Massless Dirac Fermions in Graphene


Graphene, a two-dimensional (2D) honeycomb lattice of sp2-bonded carbon atoms, is renowned for its many extraordinary properties. Not only does it have an extremely high carrier mobility, exceptional mechanical strength, and fascinating optical behavior, graphene additionally has an interesting energy-momentum relationship that is emergent from its space group symmetry. Graphene's low-energy electronic excitations consist of quasiparticles whose energies disperse linearly with wavevector and obey a 2D massless Dirac equation with a modified speed of light. This fortuitous circumstance allows for the exploration of ultra-relativistic phenomena using conventional tabletop techniques common to solid state physics and material science. Here I discuss experiments that probe these ultra-relativistic effects via application of scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and spectroscopy (STS) to graphene field-effect transistors (FETs) in proximity with charged impurities.

The first part of this dissertation focuses on the ultra-relativistic Coulomb problem. Depending on the strength of the potential, the Coulomb problem for massless Dirac particles is divided into two regimes: the subcritical and the supercritical. The subcritical regime is characterized by an electron-hole asymmetry in the local density of states (LDOS) and, unlike in nonrelativistic quantum mechanics, does not support bound states. In contrast, the supercritical regime hosts quasi-bound states that are analogous to ``atomic collapse" orbits predicted to occur in atoms with nuclear charge Z > 170. By using an STM tip to directly position calcium (Ca) impurities on a graphene surface, we assembled "artificial nuclei" and observed a transition between the subcritical and supercritical regimes with increasing nuclear charge. We also investigated the screening of these charged impurities by massless Dirac fermions while varying the graphene carrier concentration with an electrostatic gate.

The second part of this dissertation focuses on the ultra-relativistic harmonic oscillator. We developed a method for manipulating charged defects inside the boron nitride (BN) substrate underneath graphene to construct circular graphene p-n junctions. These p-n junctions were effectively quantum dots that electrostatically trapped graphene's relativistic charge carriers, and we imaged the interference patterns corresponding to this quantum confinement. The observed energy-level spectra in our p-n junctions closely matched a theoretical spectrum obtained by solving the 2D massless Dirac equation with a quadratic potential, allowing us to identify each observed state with principal and angular momentum quantum numbers.

The results discussed here provide insight into fundamental aspects of relativistic quantum mechanics and into graphene properties pertinent to technological applications. In particular, graphene's response to electrostatic potentials determines the scope in which its charge carriers can be directed and harnessed for useful purposes. Furthermore, many of the results contained in this dissertation are expected to generalize to other Dirac materials.

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