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An Exact SU(2) Symmetry and Persistent Spin Helix in a Spin-Orbit Coupled System

B. Andrei Bernevig1,2 , J. Orenstein3,4 and Shou-Cheng Zhang1


1
Department of Physics, McCullough Building, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-4045
2
Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106
3
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720 and and
4
Physics Department, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720
(Dated: February 5, 2008)
arXiv:cond-mat/0606196v1 [cond-mat.other] 7 Jun 2006

Spin-orbit coupled systems generally break the spin rotation symmetry. However, for a model with
equal Rashba and Dresselhauss coupling constant (the ReD model), and for the [110] Dresselhauss
model, a new type of SU (2) spin rotation symmetry is discovered. This symmetry is robust against
spin-independent disorder and interactions, and is generated by operators whose wavevector depends
on the coupling strength. It renders the spin lifetime infinite at this wavevector, giving rise to a
Persistent Spin Helix (PSH). We obtain the spin fluctuation dynamics at, and away, from the
symmetry point, and suggest experiments to observe the PSH.

PACS numbers: 72.25.-b, 72.10.-d, 72.15. Gd

The physics of systems with spin-orbit coupling has perimentally accessible through tuning of the Rashba
generated great interest from both academic and prac- coupling via externally applied electric fields2 . When
tical perspectives1 . In particular, spin-orbit coupling = , the spin-orbit coupling part of the Hamilto-
allows for purely electric manipulation of the electron nian reads (kx + ky )(x y ). Rotating the spa-
spin2,3,4,5 , and could be of use in areas from spintronics tial coordinates by introducing k = 12 (ky kx ), and
to quantum computing. Theoretically, spin-orbit cou- also performing the global spin rotation generated by
pling reveals fundamental physics related to topological U = 12 (1 + i2 (x + y )), brings the Hamiltonian to
phases and their applications to the intrinsic and quan- the diagonal form:
tum spin Hall effect6,7,8,9,10 .
While strong spin-orbit interaction is useful for ma- 2
k+ 2
+ k
nipulating the electron spin by electric fields, it is also HReD = U HU = 2k+ z . (2)
2m
known to have the undesired effect of causing spin-
decoherence11,12 . The decay of spin polarization reflects Throughout this paper, we shall be using both the orig-
the nonconservation of the total spin operator, S, ~ i.e. inal spin basis and the transformed spin basis for the
~ H] 6= 0, where H is any Hamiltonian that contains
[S, HReD model, depending on the context. It should al-
spin-orbit coupling. In this Letter, we identify an ex- ways be remembered that z in the transformed spin ba-
act SU (2) symmetry in a class of spin-orbit systems that sis corresponds to 12 (x y ) in the original spin basis.
renders the spin lifetime infinite. The symmetry involves HReD is mathematically equivalent to the Dresselhauss
components of spin at a finite wave vector, and is different [110] model, describing quantum wells grown along the
from the U (1) symmetry that has previously been asso- [110] direction, whose Hamiltonian is given by:
ciated with this class of models13,14 . As a result of this
symmetry, spin polarization excited at a certain magic kx2 + ky2
H[110] = 2kx z . (3)
wavevector will persist. If this symmetry can be realized 2m
experimentally, it may be possible to manipulate spins
through spin-orbit coupling without spin-polarization de- As the Hamiltonians H[ReD] and H[110] are already di-
cay, at length scales characteristic of todays semiconduc- agonal, the energy bands (for H[ReD] ) are simply given
tor lithography. by:
We consider a two-dimensional electron gas without
k2
inversion symmetry, allowing spin-orbit coupling that is , (~k) = 2k+ , (4)
linear in the electron wavevector. The most general form 2m
of linear coupling includes both Rashba and Dresselhaus where , are the spin components in the new, unitary
contributions: ~ U SU
~ . The bands in Eq.[4]
transformed, spin basis: S
k2 have an important shifting property:
H= + (ky x kx y ) + (kx x ky y ), (1)
2m
(~k) = (~k + Q),
~ (5)
where kx,y is the electron momentum along the [100] and
[010] directions respectively, , and are the strengths where Q+ = 4m, Q = 0 for the H[ReD] model and
of the Rashba, and Dresselhauss spin-orbit couplings and Qx = 4m, Qy = 0 for the H[110] model. The Fermi sur-
m is the effective electron mass. We shall be inter- faces consist of two circles shifted by the magic shifting
ested in the special case of = , which may be ex- ~ as shown in Fig.[1].
vector Q,
2

FIG. 2: [Color Online] Spin configurations for two particles A


and B depend only on the distance traveled along the x+ axis
FIG. 1: [Color Online] Fermi surfaces of the model consists and not on their initial momenta. For the same x+ distance
of two circles shifted by the wavevector Q~ = (Q+ , Q ) =
traveled, the spin precesses by exactly the same angle. After
(4m, 0). a length L+ = 2~/Q+ the spins all return exactly to the
original configuration.

H[ReD] and H[110] have the previously known U (1)


symmetry generated by z 13,14 , which ensures long life- Since S z is a conserved quantity, a fluctuation of the z-
time for uniform spin polarization along the z-axis15 . The component of spin polarization with wavevector q can
exact SU (2) symmetry discovered in this work is gener- only decay by diffusion, which takes time s = 1/Ds q 2 ,
ated by the following operators, expressed in the trans- where Ds is the spin diffusion constant. Notice that the
formed spin basis as: hermitian operators Sx (Q) = 21 (SQ
+ SQ ) and Sy (Q) =
1
= ~k c~ c~k+Q + P
2i (SQ SQ ) create a helical spin density wave in which
P
SQ ~ , SQ = k c~
~ ~ c~k
k k+Q,
the direction of the spin polarization rotates in the x, y
z
P
S0 = ~k c~ c~k c~ c~k , (6) plane in the transformed spin basis. Another manifesta-
k k
tion of this symmetry is the vanishing of spin-dependent
with ck, being the annihilation operators of spin-up and quantum interference (or weak anti-localization) at the
down particles. These operators obey the commutation SU (2) point16 .
relations for angular momentum, The infinite lifetime of the Sx , Sy spin helix with wave
+ vector Q~ results from the combined effects of diffusion
[S0z , SQ ] = 2SQ ; [SQ , SQ ] = S0z (7)
and precession in the spin-orbit effective field. A physical
The shifting property Eq.[5] ensures that the operators picture for the origin of the persistent spin helix (PSH)
defined in Eq.[6] commute with the Hamiltonian, is sketched in Fig.[2], expressed in the transformed spin
basis. Consider a particle propagating in the plane with
[HReD , c~k+Q
~ c~
~ ~ ~
k ] = ( (k + Q) (k))c~ ~ c~
k = 0 (8)
momentum ~k. In time t, it travels a distance along the
k+Q
x+ direction L+ = k+ t/m, while its spin precesses about
and similarly for c~k c~k+Q the z axis by an angle = 4k+ t/~. Eliminating t from
~ , thus uncovering the SU (2)
the latter equation yields = 4mL+ /~, demonstrating
symmetry. This symmetry is robust against both spin- that the net spin precession in the x, y plane depends
independent disorder and Coulomb (or other many-body) only on the net displacement in the x+ direction and is
interactions as the spin operators commute with the independent of any other property of the electrons path.
finite-wave vector particle density q = k c~ c~k :
P
k+~
q Electrons starting with parallel spin orientation and the
same value of x+ will return exactly to the original ori-

[q , SQ ] = [q , S0z ] = 0. (9) entation after propagating L+ = 2~/Q+ .
For sake of clarity, we have depicted the PSH in Fig.[3]
As
P a result single-particle potential scattering terms like in the original basis. For a range of values in different
V , as well as many-body interaction terms like
Pq q q materials from weak to strong spin-orbit splitting =
q Vq q q , all commute with the generators (6), and the 102 104 (m/s), the characteristic wavelength of the
SU (2) symmetry is robust against these interactions. PSH is 10m 100nm. In GaAs, the typical value is
The SU (2) conservation laws imply that the expec- L+ = 1m. This characteristic wave length is on the

tation values of S z , SQ , and SQ have infinite lifetime. scale of typical lithographic dimensions used in todays
3

semiconductor industry. demonstrates that this solution corresponds to (Sx , Sy ) =


(cos(4mx+ ), sin(4mx+ )) = const ., which is the PSH.
While spin is conserved at the SU (2) point, dynamics
emerge when the conditions ~q = Q ~ and/or = are
not met. Solving for the coupled charge and spin dy-
namics requires Boltzman transport equations, which we
obtain below using the Keyldish formalism19,20 . Assum-
ing isotropic scattering with momentum lifetime , the
retarded and advanced Greens functions are:
i 1
GR,A (k, ) = ( H ) . (11)
2
We introduce a momentum, energy, and position depen-
dent charge-spin density which is a 2 2 matrix g(k, r, t).
Summing over momentum:
d2 k
Z
(r, t) g(k, r, t), (12)
(2)3
gives the real-space spin-charge density (r, t) = n(r, t) +
S i (r, t)i , where n(r, t) and S i (r, t) are the charge and
FIG. 3: [Color Online] (a) PSH for the HReD model. The spin density and = m/2 is the density of states in
spin-orbit magnetic field is in-plane (blue), whereas the spin two-dimensions. (r, t) and g(k, r, t) satisfy a Boltzman-
helix, for the choice of the relative signs in Eq.[1] is in the type equation19,20 :
(x+ , z) plane. (b) PSH for the H[110] model. The spin-orbit  
spin g 1 H g g i
magnetic field Borbit , in blue, is out of plane, whereas the spin + , + i [H, g] = + (GR GA ).
helix, in red, is in-plane. t 2 ki ri
(13)
that we now solve for the Hamiltonian of Eq.[1] for ar-
Mathematically, the PSH is a direct manifestation of a
bitrary , . To obtain the spin-charge transport equa-
non-abelian flux in the ground state of the HReD and
tions, we follow the sequence: time-Fourier transform the
the H[110] models. Following Ref. (17), we express HReD
above equation; find a general solution for g(k, r, t) in-
in the form of a background non-abelian gauge potential,
volving (r, t) and the k-dependent spin-orbit coupling;
perform a gradient expansion of that solution (assuming
2
k 1 r << kF where kF is the Fermi wavevector) to sec-
HReD = + (k+ 2mz )2 + const. (10) ond order; and, finally, integrate over the momentum.
2m 2m
The anisotropic nature of the Fermi surfaces when both
In contrast to the general case where the non-abelian and are nonzero introduces coupling of charge and
gauge potential leads to a finite non-abelian field spin degrees of freedom beyond what was found with only
strength, the field strength vanishes identically for Rashba coupling21 . The final result, expressed in the
= . Therefore, we can eliminate the vec- i = (x+ , x , z) spatial coordinates and the original spin
tor potential by a non-abelian gauge transformation: basis, is:
(x+ , x ) exp(i2mx+ ) (x+ , x ), (x+ , x ) t n = Di2 n + B1 x+ Sx B2 x Sx+ (14)
exp(i2mx+ ) (x+ , x ). Under this transformation,
the spin-orbit coupled Hamiltonian is mapped to that of
the free Fermi gas. The cost of the transformation is t Sx = Di2 Sx + B1 x+ n C2 x Sz T2 Sx (15)
two-fold. First, the new wave function (x+ , x ) satis-
fies twisted spin boundary conditions18 . However, these
have no physical effect, since a metallic system without t Sx+ = Di2 Sx+ B2 x n C1 x+ Sz T1 Sx+ (16)
off-diagonal-long-range-order is insensitive to a change of
boundary conditions in the thermodynamic limit. Sec-
ond, while diagonal operators such as the charge n t Sz = Di2 Sz + C2 x Sx + C1 x+ Sx+ (T1 + T2 )Sz .
and Sz remain unchanged, off-diagonal operators, such (17)
as S (~x) = (~x) (~x) and S + (~x) = (~x) (~x) are With an effective kF defined as 2mEF , the constants
transformed: S (~x) exp(i4mx+ )S (~x), S + (~x) in the above equations are:
exp(i4mx+ )S + (~x). In the transformed basis, all three B1 = 2( )2 ( + )kF2 2 ,
components of the spin obey the simple diffusion equa- B2 = 2( + )2 ( )kF2 2 ,
tion, as the Hamiltonian is just that for free electrons 1 1
without spin-orbit coupling. Hence Sx = const is a C1 = 2 m ( + )kF2 , C2 = 2 m ( )kF2
solution to the diffusion equation. Transforming back T1 = 2( + )2 kF2 , T2 = 2( )2 kF2 . (18)
4

The diffusion constant D = vF2 /2. Our results for Transient spin-grating experiments23,24 are particu-
the coupling coefficients are valid in the diffusive limit larly well-suited to testing our theoretical predictions
kF << 1, kF << 1 and reduce to the appropriate (Eqs.[19,20]) and discovering the PSH, as they inject fi-
limits in the cases 0 or 020,21 . We observe that nite wavevector spin distributions. If at t = 0 an Sz po-
for a general direction of propagation in the x plane, the larization proportional to cos(qx+ ) is excited, we predict
three components of spin, and the charge, are all coupled. a time evolution,
Motivated by experiments that probe spin dynamics
optically, we focus on the behavior of the out-of-plane
component of the spin, which is Sz in the original ba- Sz (q, t) = A1 (q)ei1 (q)t + A2 (q)ei2 (q)t , (21)
sis. We assume a space-time dependence proportional to
exp[i(t ~q ~r)], and compare ~
q parallel to [110] and ~q
parallel to [110]. where
The spin polarization lifetime for ~ q parallel to [110]
is not enhanced, as no shifting property exists in this " #
1 T2
direction. For this orientation, the four equations [14-17] A1,2 (q) = 1 p 2 . (22)
separate into two coupled pairs, with n being coupled 2 T2 + 4q 2 C12
to Sx+ and Sz coupled to Sx . The optical probe will Thus, according to theory, the photoinjected spin po-
detect the characteristic frequencies that are solutions to larization wave will decay as a double exponential, with
the equation that couples Sz with Sx : characteristic decay rates i1,2 (q). As the weight
factors of the two exponentials become equal and the de-
cay rate of the slower component 0 at the magic
1
q
i1,2 = Dq 2 (2T2 + T1 T12 + 4q 2 C22 ). (19) wave-vector. If transient grating measurements verify
2 these predictions, they will be able to provide rapid and
accurate determination of the spin-orbit Hamiltonian, en-
At = we have T2 = C2 = 0 and the characteristic
abling tuning of sample parameters to achieve = .
frequencies become i1 = Dq 2 T1 , i2 = Dq 2 .
The spin polarization dynamics are qualitatively dif- In conclusion, we have discovered a new type of spin
ferent in the [110] direction, which is the direction along SU (2) symmetry in a class of spin-orbit coupled mod-
which the Fermi surfaces are shifted. In this case the els including the ReD model and the Dresselhauss [110]
four equations again decouple into two pairs, with n cou- model. Based on this symmetry, we predict the exis-
pled to Sx and Sz coupled to Sx+ . The characteristic tence of a Persistent Spin Helix. The lifetime of the PSH
frequencies are: is infinite within these models, but of course there will
be other relaxation mechanisms which would lead to its
1
q
i1,2 = Dq 2 (2T1 + T2 T22 + 4q 2 C12 ). (20) eventual decay. We obtained the transport equations for
2 arbitrary strength of Rashba and Dresselhauss couplings
and these equations provide the basis to analyze experi-
We note that i2 (q) has a minimum at a wavevector that
ments in search of the PSH.
depends only on , , and m, i.e., is independent of kF
and . When = the decay rates become i1,2 = B.A.B. wishes to acknowledge the hospitality of the
Dq 2 T1 C1 q, and i2 (q) is zero (corresponding to the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at University of
PSH) at the shifting wave-vector 4m. We have checked California at Santa Barbara, where part of this work
that this relation continues to hold as we include higher was performed. This work is supported by the NSF
order corrections to the transport coefficients. Earlier through the grants DMR-0342832, by the US Depart-
calculations based on the pure Rashba model21,22 also ment of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences under
predict
an increased spin lifetime at a finite wave vector contract DE-AC03-76SF00515, the Western Institute of
( 15/2)m, but the lifetime is enhanced relative to q = 0 Nano-electronics and the IBM Stanford SpinApps Cen-
only by the factor 16/7. ter.

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