March 3, 18:11 EST
MIT physicists have created a new form of matter, a supersolid, which combines the properties of solids with those of superfluids.
The radical new material has never been created before, although physicists had predicted the possibility of supersolids.
The researchers behind the discovery say it could lead to breakthroughs in superconducting magnets and super efficient energy transport systems.
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'It is counterintuitive to have a material which combines superfluidity and solidity,' explained team leader Wolfgang Ketterle, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at MIT.
'If your coffee was superfluid and you stirred it, it would continue to spin around forever.'
By using lasers to manipulate a superfluid gas known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, the team was able to coax the condensate into a quantum phase of matter that has a rigid structure, like a solid, but can flow without viscosity, a key characteristic of a superfluid.
The researchers report their results this week in the journal Nature.
Studies into this apparently contradictory phase of matter could yield deeper insights into superfluids and superconductors, which are important for improvements in technologies such as superconducting magnets and sensors, as well as efficient energy transport, the team said.
It has previously been theorised solid helium could become superfluid if helium atoms could move around in a solid crystal of helium, effectively becoming a supersolid.
However, the experimental proof remained elusive.
The team used a combination of laser cooling and evaporative cooling methods, originally co-developed by Ketterle, to cool atoms of sodium to nanokelvin temperatures.
'The recipe for the supersolid is really simple,' Junru Li, an MIT graduate student who worked on the discovery, told MIT News.
'But it was a big challenge to precisely align all the laser beams and to get everything stable to observe the stripe phase.'
Currently, the supersolid only exists at extremely low temperatures under ultrahigh-vacuum conditions.
Going forward, the team plans to carry out further experiments on supersolids and spin-orbit coupling, characterizing and understanding the properties of the new form of matter they created.
'With our cold atoms, we are mapping out what is possible in nature,' explains Ketterle.
'Now that we have experimentally proven that the theories predicting supersolids are correct, we hope to inspire further research, possibly with unanticipated results.'
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