NIU Ph.D. student publishes discoveries in top physics journal

Laxman Thoutam
Laxman Thoutam

An NIU Ph.D. student in physics is the first author of recently published research in the prestigious journal, Physical Review Letters.

The research, by Laxman Thoutam with co-authors from NIU and Argonne National Laboratory, might move scientists closer to understanding the properties of an unusual material known as tungsten-ditelluride’s (WTe2), which could play a critical role in future electronics.

“This is definitely a good start to Mr. Thoutam’s scientific career,” says NIU’s Zhili Xiao, a Board of Trustees Professor of physics who holds a joint appointment with Argonne, serves as Thoutam’s adviser and is a co-author on the research. “Being first author means he was the most significant contributor to the work reported in the article.”

Interest in WTe2 was sparked in 2014, when an article in the journal Nature reported on the material’s extremely large magnetoresistance. “Such a material is highly desirable in recording media, magnetic field sensors, computer hard-drives and other devices,” Xiao said.

Thoutam worked with colleagues to reveal the mechanism for the extremely large magnetoresistance, and their discoveries were reported in the July 22 issue of Physical Review Letters. The findings are further discussed by Kamran Behnia, director of quantum matter research at Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, in an opinion piece published in the journal Physics, which provides news and commentary on select papers from American Physical Society journals.

“Exploring physics at the nanoscale gives us unique and fascinating results that could do wonders in real-life applications,” Thoutam said. “I focus on bringing to light the many possibilities of using nanoscience for practical purposes. There is much to be discovered at this small scale.”

Zhili Xiao
Zhili Xiao

Thoutam came to DeKalb from India in 2009 to pursue master’s degree in electrical engineering at NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET). After earning that degree in 2011, he joined NIU’s physics Ph.D. program.

“I thought it could be extremely challenging for an engineering student to pursue a physics Ph.D.,” Xiao said. “However, Mr. Thoutam proved my concerns unnecessary, earning stellar grades. With the support of NIU’s Nanoscience Fellowship, he started his dissertation research in my group two years ago. He has been working on two-dimensional materials such as graphene – a monolayer of carbon atoms in a honeycomb lattice – aiming to discover new phenomena and novel applications.”

In addition to Thoutam and Xiao, the research paper’s co-authors included Y.L. Wang and W.K. Kwok of the Argonne Materials Science Division (MSD); S. Das, A. Luican-Mayer and R. Divan of Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials; and G.W. Crabtree of Argonne MSD and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

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