The quantum spin Hall state is a state of matter proposed to exist in special, two-dimensional, semiconductors with spin-orbit coupling. The quantum spin Hall state of matter is the cousin of the integer quantum Hall state, but, unlike the latter, it does not require the application of a large magnetic field. The quantum spin Hall state does not break any discrete symmetries (such as time-reversal or parity). It has been recently proposed ^{[1]} and subsequently experimentally realized ^{[2]} in mercury (II) telluride (HgTe) semiconductors.

The first proposal for the existence of a quantum spin Hall state was developed by Kane and Mele^{[3]} who adapted an earlier model for graphene by Haldane^{[4]} which exhibits an integer quantum Hall effect. The Kane and Mele model is two copies of the Haldane model such that the spin up electron exhibits a chiral integer quantum Hall Effect while the spin down electron exhibits and anti-chiral integer quantum Hall effect. Overall this idealized model has a charge-Hall conductance of exactly zero but a spin-Hall conductance of exactly (in units of ). Independently, a quantum spin Hall model was proposed by Bernevig and Zhang^{[5]} in an intricate strain architecture which engineers, due to spin-orbit coupling, a magnetic field pointing upwards for spin-up electrons and a magnetic field pointing downwards for spin-down electrons. The main ingredient is the existence of spin-orbit coupling, which can be understood as a momentum-dependent magnetic field coupling to the spin of the electron.

Quantum spin Hall effect in HgTe quantum wells

Real experimental systems, however are far from the idealized picture presented above in which spin-up and spin-down electrons are not coupled. A very important achievement was the realization that the quantum spin Hall state is robust to the introduction of spin-up spin-down scattering^{[6]}. In a separate paper, Kane and Mele introduced a topological Z_{2} invariant who characterizes a state as exhibiting or not exhibiting a quantum spin Hall effect. Further stability studies of the edge liquid through which conduction takes place in the quantum spin Hall state proved, both analytically and numerically that the state is robust to both interactions and extra spin-orbit coupling terms that mix spin-up and spin-down electrons.

Since graphene has extremely weak spin-orbit coupling, it is very unlikely to support a quantum spin Hall state at temperatures achievable with today's technologies. A very realistic theoretical proposal for the existence of the quantum spin Hall state has been put forward by Bernevig, Hughes and Zhang^{1:} (BHZ) in Cadmium Telluride/Mercury Telluride/Cadmium Telluride (CdTe/HgTe/CdTe) quantum wells in which a thin (5-7 nanometers) sheet of HgTe is sandwiched between two sheets of CdTe. Different quantum wells of varying HgTe thickness can be built. When the sheet of HgTe in between the CdTe is thin, the system behaves like an ordinary insulator and does not conduct when the Fermi level resides in the band-gap. When the sheet of HgTe is varied and made thicker (this requires the fabrication of separate quantum wells), an interesting phenomenon happens. Due to the inverted band structure of HgTe, BHZ predicted that, at some critical HgTe thickness, a Lifshitz transition occurs in which the system closes the bulk band gap to become a semi-metal, and then re-opens it to become a quantum spin Hall insulator.

In the gap closing and re-opening process, two edge states are brought out from the bulk and cross the bulk-gap. As such, when the Fermi level resides in the bulk gap, the conduction is dominated by the edge channels that cross the gap. The two-terminal conductance is in the quantum spin Hall state and zero in the normal insulating state. As the conduction is dominated by the edge channels, the value of the conductance should be insensitive to how wide the sample is. A magnetic field should destroy the quantum spin Hall state by breaking time-reversal invariance and allowing spin-up spin-down electron scattering processes at the edge. All these predictions ^{[1]} have been experimentally verified in a beautiful experiment ^{[2]} performed in the Molenkamp labs at Universitat Würzburg in Germany

^ ^{a}^{b} Markus König, Steffen Wiedmann, Christoph Brüne, Andreas Roth, Hartmut Buhmann, Laurens W. Molenkamp, Xiao-Liang Qi, and Shou-Cheng Zhang, Published online September 20 2007; 10.1126/science.1148047 (Science Express Research Articles)

^ C.L. Kane and E.J. Mele, Physical Review Letters 95, 226801 (2005).