Two teams of scientists have created a new form of matter, which has been dubbed a “time crystal”.
What makes the time crystal so special is that it seems to suspend the laws of thermodynamics almost indefinitely. Uh, sorry, Newton.
In normal crystal – such as salt, snowflakes or diamonds – atoms are arranged in 3D repeating patterns. However, in time crystals, the atoms crystalize in time rather than space.
In this new form of matter – once thought theoretically impossible – the atoms never settle down into what’s we call a “thermal equilibrium” a state in which they all have an equal amount of heat.
Scientists are calling this new class of matter “nonequilibrium phases”, and believe that it may help us to store and transfer information in quantum computers.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek first proposed time crystals in 2012. However, it wasn’t until the success of the two experiments – one at the University of Maryland and one at Harvard University – that the existence of the new form of matter was confirmed.
Wilczek told Gizmodo:
The experiments are beautiful and open up a new class of states of matter that really qualitatively are new and fascinating in their own right…the new discoveries… are certainly a recognisable descendant of the original vision and have retained the name.
Although the experiments were conducted last September, they only passed peer-review yesterday. The results were then republished in the journal Nature.
At the University of Maryland, the team trapped 14 ions of ytterbium and manipulated them with laser beams. Despite the fact that energy was being added to the system, the material did not heat up, thus suspending the laws of thermodynamics.
At Harvard, scientists used lasers and microwave radiation to pulse nitrogen vacancies in a diamond. They observed that oscillations in the atoms’ properties were happening at different intervals from the pulses. It is thought that the experiments were influenced by the strange way that matter behaves at a quantum level.
The atoms of a time crystal may seem to suggest the possibility of perpetual motion, but the researchers say that this isn’t possible. That’s because in order for the atoms to oscillate, they require constant external input.
It’s still early days for this new form of matter, but scientists are excited about possible future applications. The discovery of time crystals may lead to a new era of our understanding of quantum mechanics and allow us to explore the possibilities of quantum computing.