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Orbitals and charge go their separate ways
In certain materials at very low temperatures, an electron's spin can separate from its charge, zooming through the crystal in the form of a “spinon.” Such materials are usually one-dimensional, and their atoms have spins of 1/2. Wu et al. observed related behavior in a three-dimensional metal, Yb2Pt2Pb, where the Yb ions have a large magnetic moment that has its origin in the electrons' orbital motion rather than their spin. Neutron-scattering measurements indicated that these large magnetic moments can flip their direction through an exchange process similar to the one that occurs in spin 1/2 systems. This process results in effective charge-orbital separation.
Science, this issue p. 1206
Exotic quantum states and fractionalized magnetic excitations, such as spinons in one-dimensional chains, are generally expected to occur in 3d transition metal systems with spin 1/2. Our neutron-scattering experiments on the 4f-electron metal Yb2Pt2Pb overturn this conventional wisdom. We observe broad magnetic continuum dispersing in only one direction, which indicates that the underlying elementary excitations are spinons carrying fractional spin-1/2. These spinons are the emergent quantum dynamics of the anisotropic, orbital-dominated Yb moments. Owing to their unusual origin, only longitudinal spin fluctuations are measurable, whereas the transverse excitations such as spin waves are virtually invisible to magnetic neutron scattering. The proliferation of these orbital spinons strips the electrons of their orbital identity, resulting in charge-orbital separation.