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Supersolids produced in exotic state of quantum matter

Tuesday, November 8, 2016 5:43
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A mind-bogglingly strange state of matter may have finally made its appearance. Two teams of scientists report the creation of supersolids, which are both liquid and solid at the same time. Supersolids have a crystalline structure like a solid, but can simultaneously flow like a superfluid, a liquid that flows without friction.

Research teams from MIT and ETH Zurich both produced supersolids in an exotic form of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Reports of the work were published online at arXiv.org on October 26 (by the MIT group) and September 28 (by the Zurich group).

Bose-Einstein condensates are created when a group of atoms, chilled to near absolute zero, huddle up into the same quantum state and begin behaving like a single entity. The scientists’ trick for creating a supersolid was to nudge the condensate, which is already a superfluid, into simultaneously behaving like a solid. To do so, the MIT and Zurich teams created regular density variations in the atoms — like the repeating crystal structure of a more typical solid — in the system. That density variation stays put, even though the fluid can still flow.

The new results may be the first supersolids ever created — at least by some definitions. “It’s certainly the first case where you can unambiguously look at a system and say this is both a superfluid and a solid,” says Sarang Gopalakrishnan of the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. But the systems are far from what physicists predicted when they first dreamt up the strange materials.

Scientists originally expected supersolids to appear in helium-4 — an isotope of the element helium and the same gas that fills balloons at children’s birthday parties. Helium-4 can be chilled and pressurized to produce a superfluid or a solid. Supersolid helium would have been a mixture of these two states.

Previous claims of detecting supersolid helium-4, however, didn’t hold up to scrutiny (SN Online: 10/12/2012). So, says Nikolay Prokof’ev of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “now we have to go to the artificial quantum matter.” Unlike helium-4, Bose-Einstein condensates can be precisely controlled with lasers, and tuned to behave as scientists wish.

The two groups of scientists formed their supersolids in different ways. By zapping their condensate with lasers, the MIT group induced an interaction that gave some of the atoms a shove. This motion caused an interference between the pushed and the motionless atoms that’s similar to the complex patterns of ripples that can occur when waves of water meet. As a result, zebralike stripes — alternating high- and low-density regions — formed in the material,  indicating that it was a solid.

Applying a different method, the ETH Zurich team used two optical cavities — sets of mirrors between which light bounces back and forth repeatedly. The light waves inside the cavities caused atoms to interact and thereby arrange themselves into a crystalline pattern, with atoms separated by an integer number of wavelengths of light.

Authors of the two studies declined to comment on the research, as the papers have been submitted to embargoed journals.

“Experimentally, of course, these are absolutely fantastic achievements,” says Anatoly Kuklov of the College of Staten Island. But, he notes, the particles in the supersolid Bose-Einstein condensates do not interact as strongly as particles would in supersolid helium-4. The idea of a supersolid is so strange because superfluid and solid states compete, and in most materials atoms are forced to choose one or the other. But in Bose-Einstein condensates these two states can more easily live together in harmony, making the weird materials less counterintuitive than supersolid helium-4 would be.

Additionally, says Prokof’ev, “some people will say ‘OK, well, this does not qualify exactly for supersolid state,’” because the spacing of the density variations was set externally, rather than arising naturally as it would have in helium.

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