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Time Crystal: New Form of Matter Created by Scientists

A time crystal, a new phase of matter, has been created by scientists. Its peculiar characteristic is that its atoms move in a sequence repeating in time and not in space. The findings are published in Nature.

Time crystals, a new form of matter. Photo credits: E. Edwards/JQI.

Crystals are solid substances whose atoms form 3-D patterns into a highly organised microscopic structure. The ones that we’re acquainted with include snowflakes, diamond, and the salt that we consume. Their atoms move in patterns repeating in space. The newly-discovered crystal, however, has an atom movement that repeats not in space, but in time.

The atoms making up the time crystal are never in thermal equilibrium, that is, they never have share the same amount of heat. This type of state, known as the nonequilibrium phase, feature in predictions of scientists before, but had not been documented—until now. Andrew Potter from The University of Texas, Austin, and his colleagues used these theories to create the new phase of matter. They now look forward to delving deeper into the unknown territory. Potter explains that their time crystal will help them explore other nonequilibrium phases.

The time crystal was created from element ytterbium atoms that were subjected to a particular electrical field. These atoms, called ions when they are electrically charged, were made to levitate over the surface, and were later struck with a laser pulse, making them flip upside down. The scientists, then, smacked then continuously into a constant rhythm, thereby creating a pattern of flips that were being repeated in time.

Potter predicted that the system would be characterised by a strange quantum behaviour whereby the speed of the pattern of atom flips would be only half as much as that of the laser pulses: this was confirmed during their experimenting, and was used to confirm the occurrence of a time crystal.

Why is research in this field deemed important? According to researchers, nonequilibrium phases of matter might be potentially used to store or transfer data into quantum computers.


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