Crystals are structures in which a pattern of atoms or molecules repeats in space. Now, two teams of researchers have figured out that crystals’ repeating patterns can also exist through time. These “time crystals,” detailed in a new paper in , are an entirely new kind of matter, one that can never reach equilibrium.
To create the time crystals, researchers at University of Maryland hooked together 10 ytterbium atoms and hit them with two lasers multiple times to keep them out of equilibrium. Though the atoms did settle into a pattern, they could not reach equilibrium, meaning that the crystals perpetually remain in motion, though they don’t contain any energy. Almost all of physics is based in studying matter that is at equilibrium, so the ability to create these non-equilibrium crystals is a huge deal for the future of physics.
“This is a new phase of matter, period, but it is also really cool because it is one of the first examples of non-equilibrium matter,” lead researcher Norman Yao from the University of California, Berkeley told .
The idea of time crystals–of a form of matter that appears to move even at its energy-less ground state–was first proposed by Nobel-Prize winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek in 2012. Usually, if matter is in its ground state, movement should be impossible, because it contains no energy.
The researchers say that time crystals resemble Jell-O. When you tap Jell-O, it jiggles. The only difference is that the crystals are jiggling without using any energy, without any tap. By definition, time crystals can never stop oscillating, no matter how little energy they contain.
Right now, it’s unclear what the practical use of this discovery will be, but it’s possible that these crystals could serve a function in quantum computers.
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