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In physics, the Fermi energy (EF) of a system of non-interacting fermions is the smallest possible increase in the ground state energy when exactly one particle is added to the system. It is equivalent to the chemical potential of the system in the ground state at absolute zero. The Fermi energy is one of the central concepts of condensed matter physics.
According to quantum mechanics, fermions -- particles with a half-integer spin, usually 1/2, such as electrons -- follow the Pauli exclusion principle, which states that no two particles may occupy the same quantum state. The ground state of a non-interacting fermion system is constructed by starting with an empty system and adding particles one at a time, consecutively filling up the lowest-energy unoccupied quantum states. When the desired number of particles has been reached, the Fermi energy is the energy of the highest occupied state (or, equivalently, the lowest unoccupied state; the difference is not important when the system is macroscopic in size.)
In the free electron gas, the quantum mechanical version of an ideal gas of fermions, the quantum states can be labelled according to their momentum. Something similar can be done for periodic systems, such as electrons moving in the atomic lattice of a metal, using something called the "quasi-momentum" (see Bloch wave). In either case, the Fermi energy states reside on a surface in momentum space known as the Fermi surface. For the free electron gas, the Fermi surface is the surface of a sphere; for periodic systems, it generally has a contorted shape (see Brillouin zones). The volume enclosed by the Fermi surface defines the number of electrons in the system, and the topology is directly related to the transport properties of metals, such as electrical conductivity. The study of the Fermi surface is sometimes called Fermiology. The Fermi surfaces of most metals are well studied both theoretically and experimentally.
The Fermi energy of the free electron gas is related to the chemical potential by the equation
where εF is the Fermi energy, k is the Boltzmann constant and T is temperature. Hence, the chemical potential is approximately equal to the Fermi energy at temperatures of much less than the characteristic Fermi temperature EF/k. The characteristic temperature is on the order of 105K for a metal, hence at room temperature (300K), the Fermi energy and chemical potential are essentially equivalent. This is significant since it is the chemical potential, not the Fermi energy, which appears in Fermi-Dirac statistics.
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