Journal article

Sensing the quantum limit in scanning tunnelling spectroscopy

The tunnelling current in scanning tunnelling spectroscopy (STS) is typically and often implicitly modelled by a continuous and homogeneous charge flow. If the charging energy of a single-charge quantum sufficiently exceeds the thermal energy, however, the granularity of the current becomes non-negligible. In this quantum limit, the capacitance of the tunnel junction mediates an interaction of the tunnelling electrons with the surrounding electromagnetic environment and becomes a source of noise itself, which cannot be neglected in STS. Using a scanning tunnelling microscope operating at 15 mK, we show that we operate in this quantum limit, which determines the ultimate energy resolution in STS. The P(E)-theory describes the probability for a tunnelling electron to exchange energy with the environment and can be regarded as the energy resolution function. We experimentally demonstrate this effect with a superconducting aluminium tip and a superconducting aluminium sample, where it is most pronounced.


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