A pseudospin-1/2 Mott phase on a honeycomb lattice is proposed to host the celebrated two-dimensional Kitaev model which has an elusive quantum spin liquid ground state, and fascinating physics relevant to the development of future templates towards topological quantum bits. Here we report a comprehensive, atomically resolved real-space study by scanning transmission electron and scanning tunnelling microscopies on a novel layered material displaying Kitaev physics, α-RuCl 3. Our local crystallography analysis reveals considerable variations in the geometry of the ligand sublattice in thin films of α-RuCl 3 that opens a way to realization of a spatially inhomogeneous magnetic ground state at the nanometre length scale. Using scanning tunnelling techniques, we observe the electronic energy gap of ≈0.25 eV and intra-unit cell symmetry breaking of charge distribution in individual α-RuCl 3 surface layer. The corresponding charge-ordered pattern has a fine structure associated with two different types of charge disproportionation at Cl-terminated surface.
The two-dimensional Kitaev model is a quantum spin liquid state that theory predicts should appear in some materials with a honeycomb lattice. Here, the authors use atom-resolution scanning transmission electron and scanning tunnelling microscopies to characterize one such candidate material, α-RuCl 3.