Conduction Electrons in Metal

Recall, from Section 8.5, that the mean number of particles occupying state (energy ) is given by

(8.134) |

according to the Fermi-Dirac distribution. Here,

(8.135) |

is termed the

(8.136) |

where is the total number of particles contained in the volume . It is clear, from the previous equation, that the Fermi energy, , is generally a function of the temperature, .

Let us investigate the behavior of the so-called *Fermi function*,

(8.137) |

as varies. Here, the energy is measured from its lowest possible value . If the Fermi energy, , is such that then , and reduces to the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. However, for the case of conduction electrons in a metal, we are interested in the opposite limit, where

(8.138) |

In this limit, if then , so that . On the other hand, if then , so that falls off exponentially with increasing , just like a classical Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Note that when . The transition region in which goes from a value close to unity to a value close to zero corresponds to an energy interval of order , centered on . In fact, when , and when . The behavior of the Fermi function is illustrated in Figure 8.4.

In the limit as , the transition region becomes infinitesimally narrow. In this case, for , and for , as illustrated in Figure 8.4. This is an obvious result, because when the conduction electrons attain their lowest energy, or ground-state, configuration. Because the Pauli exclusion principle requires that there be no more than one electron per single-particle quantum state, the lowest energy configuration is obtained by piling electrons into the lowest available unoccupied states, until all of the electrons are used up. Thus, the last electron added to the pile has a quite considerable energy, , because all of the lower energy states are already occupied. Clearly, the exclusion principle implies that a Fermi-Dirac gas possesses a large mean energy, even at absolute zero.

Let us calculate the Fermi energy, , of a Fermi-Dirac gas at . The energy of each particle is related to its momentum via

(8.139) |

where is the de Broglie wavevector. Here, is the electron mass. At , all quantum states whose energy is less than the Fermi energy, , are filled. The Fermi energy corresponds to a so-called

Thus, at , all quantum states with are filled, and all those with are empty.

Now, we know, by analogy with Equation (7.183), that there are
allowable translational states per unit volume of
-space. The volume of
the sphere of radius
in
-space is
. It
follows that the *Fermi sphere* of radius
contains
translational states. The number of
quantum states inside the sphere is twice this, because electrons
possess two possible spin states for every possible translational state. Because the
total number of occupied states (i.e., the total number of quantum
states inside the Fermi sphere) must equal the total number of particles
in the gas, it follows that

(8.141) |

The previous expression can be rearranged to give

Hence,

(8.143) |

which implies that the de Broglie wavelength, , corresponding to the Fermi energy, is of order the mean separation between particles . All quantum states with de Broglie wavelengths are occupied at , whereas all those with are empty.

According to Equations (8.140) and (8.142), the Fermi energy at takes the form

It is easily demonstrated that for conventional metals at room temperature. (See Exercise 17.)

The majority of the conduction electrons in a metal occupy a band of completely filled states with energies far below the Fermi energy. In many cases, such electrons have very little effect on the macroscopic properties of the metal. Consider, for example, the contribution of the conduction electrons to the specific heat of the metal. The heat capacity at constant volume, , of these electrons can be calculated from a knowledge of their mean energy, , as a function of : that is,

(8.145) |

If the electrons obeyed classical Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics, so that for all electrons, then the equipartition theorem would give

(8.146) | ||

(8.147) |

However, the actual situation, in which has the form shown in Figure 8.4, is very different. A small change in does not affect the mean energies of the majority of the electrons, with , because these electrons lie in states that are completely filled, and remain so when the temperature is changed. It follows that these electrons contribute nothing whatsoever to the heat capacity. On the other hand, the relatively small number of electrons, , in the energy range of order , centered on the Fermi energy, in which is significantly different from 0 and 1, do contribute to the specific heat. In the tail end of this region, , so the distribution reverts to a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Hence, from Equation (8.147), we expect each electron in this region to contribute roughly an amount to the heat capacity. Hence, the heat capacity can be written

(8.148) |

However, because only a fraction of the total conduction electrons lie in the tail region of the Fermi-Dirac distribution, we expect

(8.149) |

It follows that

Because in conventional metals, the molar specific heat of the conduction electrons is clearly very much less than the classical value . This accounts for the fact that the molar specific heat capacities of metals at room temperature are about the same as those of insulators. Before the advent of quantum mechanics, the classical theory predicted incorrectly that the presence of conduction electrons should raise the heat capacities of monovalent metals by 50 percent [i.e., ] compared to those of insulators.

Note that the specific heat (8.150) is not temperature independent. In fact, using the superscript to denote the electronic specific heat, the molar specific heat can be written

(8.151) |

where is a (positive) constant of proportionality. At room temperature is completely masked by the much larger specific heat, , due to lattice vibrations. However, at very low temperatures , where is a (positive) constant of proportionality. (See Section 7.14.) Clearly, at low temperatures, approaches zero far more rapidly that the electronic specific heat, as is reduced. Hence, it should be possible to measure the electronic contribution to the molar specific heat at low temperatures.

The total molar specific heat of a metal at low temperatures takes the form

Hence,

(8.153) |

It follows that a plot of versus should yield a straight-line whose intercept on the vertical axis gives the coefficient . Figure 8.5 shows such a plot. The fact that a good straight-line is obtained verifies that the temperature dependence of the heat capacity predicted by Equation (8.152) is indeed correct.