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The defining characteristics of a superconductor are symmetry of gap function, which tells us something about how pairs of electrons move through the sample, and the strength of that pairing. Together, this information gives us the highest temperature to which the superconductor can remain superconducting. In conventional superconductors the gap function is symmetric, or s-wave, and tends to have low transition temperatures. The newly discovered iron-based superconductors also have s-wave symmetry, but the rather high transition temperatures, in addition to other properties, indicate that they are not conventional. Hanaguri et al. (p. 474; see the Perspective by Hoffman) use scanning tunneling microscopy to provide direct experimental confirmation of the unconventional s-wave pairing of the superconducting carriers in these materials.
The superconducting state is characterized by a pairing of electrons with a superconducting gap on the Fermi surface. In iron-based superconductors, an unconventional pairing state has been argued for theoretically. We used scanning tunneling microscopy on Fe(Se,Te) single crystals to image the quasi-particle scattering interference patterns in the superconducting state. By applying a magnetic field to break the time-reversal symmetry, the relative sign of the superconducting gap can be determined from the magnetic-field dependence of quasi-particle scattering amplitudes. Our results indicate that the sign is reversed between the hole and the electron Fermi-surface pockets (s±-wave), favoring the unconventional pairing mechanism associated with spin fluctuations.