Thousands of exotic ‘topological’ materials discovered through sweeping search

By Elizabeth Gibney

The already buzzing field of topological physics could be about to explode. For the first time, researchers have systematically scoured through entire databases of materials in search of ones that harbour topological states — exotic phases of matter that have fascinated physicists for a decade. The results show that thousands of known materials probably have topological properties — and perhaps up to 24% of materials in all. Previously, researchers knew of just a few hundred topological materials, and only around a dozen have been studied in detail.

“I’m shocked by the number,” says Reyes Calvo, an experimental physicist at the nanoGUNE Cooperative Research Center in San Sebastián, Spain.

In late July, several teams posted preprints1,2,3 detailing their scans of tens of thousands of materials and their predicted topological classifications, which are based on algorithms that use a material’s chemistry and symmetry to calculate their properties. Two teams have already integrated their algorithms into searchable databases. “You can put in a compound name and, with one click, get whether there is topology or not. For me, this is wonderful,” says Chandra Shekhar, a condensed-matter physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden, Germany.

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