Magnetoelectric polarizability and axion electrodynamics in crystalline insulators

Phys Rev Lett. 2009 Apr 10;102(14):146805. doi: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.102.146805. Epub 2009 Apr 10.


The orbital motion of electrons in a three-dimensional solid can generate a pseudoscalar magnetoelectric coupling theta, a fact we derive for the single-particle case using a recent theory of polarization in weakly inhomogeneous materials. This polarizability theta is the same parameter that appears in the "axion electrodynamics" Lagrangian DeltaL_{EM}=(thetae;{2}/2pih)E.B, which is known to describe the unusual magnetoelectric properties of the three-dimensional topological insulator (theta=pi). We compute theta for a simple model that accesses the topological insulator and discuss its connection to the surface Hall conductivity. The orbital magnetoelectric polarizability can be generalized to the many-particle wave function and defines the 3D topological insulator, like the integer quantum Hall effect, in terms of a topological ground-state response function.