free-electron theory of metals

Free-electron theory of metals

The treatment of a metal as containing a gas of electrons completely free to move within it. The theory was originally proposed in 1900 to describe and correlate the electrical and thermal properties of metals. Later, quantum mechanics became the basis for the theory of most of the general properties of simple metals such as sodium, with one free electron per atom, magnesium with two, and aluminum with three. Transition metals, such as iron, have partially filled electronic d states and are not treated by the free-electron model.

Three years after J. J. Thomson's 1897 discovery of the electron, P. Drude suggested that the transport properties of metals might be understood by assuming that their electrons are free and in thermal equilibrium with their atoms. This theory was made more quantitative by H. A. Lorentz. Assuming that the mean free path of electrons was limited by collisions, he was able to derive Ohm's law for the electrical conductivity and obtain the ratio of thermal to electrical conductivity in excellent agreement with experiment. This ratio, divided by the absolute temperature, is called the Wiedemann-Franz ratio and had been observed to be universal 50 years earlier. See Conduction (electricity), Conduction (heat), Kinetic theory of matter, Mean free path, Ohm's law, Thermal conduction in solids, Wiedemann-Franz law

The theory, however, had two major shortcomings. First, it predicted a large component of the specific heat of a metal, not present in insulators, which was not observed. Second, comparison of the theory with experiment indicated that the mean free path of the electrons became extremely large at low temperatures; the model offered no justification.

In 1928 A. Sommerfeld revised Lorentz's treatment by using quantum statistics, which removed the difficulty of the specific heat without losing the successful description of transport properties. The resulting theory remains the basis for the understanding of most transport properties of metals and semiconductors. At about the same time, W. V. Houston and F. Bloch solved the quantum-mechanical wave equation for electrons in a regular periodic structure, finding that they could indeed have arbitrarily large mean free paths if there were no defects in the periodicity, thereby putting the free-electron theory on a firm basis. See Band theory of solids, Bloch theorem, Fermi-Dirac statistics, Statistical mechanics

Even in the context of a free-electron gas, there are strong Coulomb interactions between electrons which are frequently neglected in the free-electron theory of metals. This neglect was justified in the late 1950s by L. D. Landau, who asserted that, even with strong electron–electron interactions, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the excited states, called quasiparticle states, of the real system and the one-electron excitations from the ground state of the noninteracting electron gas. Thus, the formulations for free-electron theory still follow, but perhaps with modifications of parameters such as mass. Subsequent theory indicates that indeed these modification due to the electron-electron interaction are extremely small for the low-energy excitations present in thermal equilibrium, and so again the simplest theory succeeds for many properties, although substantial modifications are required for the higher-energy excitations caused by light. There are additional corrections, which are much larger than those from the electron-electron interaction, arising from the interaction between electrons and phonons, the quantum-mechanical term for lattice vibrations. In many metals these vibrations reduce the electron velocities by factors of as much as 2, increasing the electronic specific heat although they turn out not to modify the conductivity itself. See Phonon

Another feature of the electron–phonon interaction is a resulting interaction among electrons, which is attractive and tends to cancel or exceed the repulsive electron-electron interaction. At low temperatures the net attraction binds electrons in pairs in a superconducting state. The theory of J. Bardeen, J. R. Schrieffer, and L. N. Cooper (the BCS theory of superconductivity), which first explained this phenomenon, is also a free-electron theory, but assumes that the free electrons have such a net attractive interaction. In contrast, it is generally believed that the high-temperature superconductors discovered in 1986 are very far from free-electron in character, and most workers do not believe that phonons are primarily responsible for the attractive interaction. See Solid-state physics, Superconductivity

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

free-electron theory of metals

[¦frē i′lek‚trän ¦thē·ə·rē əv ′med·əlz]
(solid-state physics)
A model of a metal in which the free electrons, that is, those giving rise to the conductivity, are regarded as moving in a potential (due to the metal ions in the lattice and to all the remaining free electrons) which is approximated as constant everywhere inside the metal. Also known as Sommerfeld model; Sommerfeld theory.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.