From atomic clocks to quantum computers, the area of quantum physics is relevant to the world around us in various ways, but mostly in ways we can’t see. Because of its inherent invisibility, as well as its complicated and confusing nature, it is often a difficult field of science for many to understand.
Physicists around the world have long worked to solve the mysteries of quantum physics and how it works, and now, in a study of University of LancasterA team of researchers has discovered that “time crystals,” once considered an impossibility, can still be real and obey quantum physics.
Background: What is a time crystal?
Time crystals are considered a regulation of atoms or particles that form regularly repeating patterns over time. These crystals are opposed to the more familiar concept of: space crystals, which are simply molecules or atoms arranged in patterns in space. Space crystals contain objects such as diamonds, snowflakes, pearls and even salt.
Unlike space crystals, however, time crystals are much more difficult to conceive and prove. It was once believed that these crystals impossible, because they were made up of atoms in an infinite train through time. However, recent work by physicists at Lancaster University may provide evidence for time crystals using another long-discussed topic in science: perpetual motion.
Analysis: Perpetual Motion Machines
Perpetual motion describes the phenomenon where a device set in motion goes on forever, without any additional energy input. Perpetual motion machines have fascinated scientists and inventors for: decadesbecause these machines would maximize efficiency… if one were ever built. However, wWhile many attempts have been made to create such machines, none have been successful to date, as the concept of perpetuum mobile is widely recognized to violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
“Everyone knows that perpetuum mobile is impossible,” explains Dr. Samuli Auttica Lancaster University professor and the lead author of the recent time crystal study† Nevertheless, Autti and the team believed that time crystals were somewhat similar to the concept of perpetual motion, and the two could even be linked in some way.
“In physics, perpetual motion is okay as long as we keep our eyes closed,” says Autti, adding, “Sneaking through this fissure allows us to create time crystals.”
To make the time crystals, the researchers used a rare isotope of helium called Helium-3. They cooled the superfluid helium to near absolute zero Kelvin and then created a few time crystals in the helium using similar quantum components to those found in a quantum computer† Then the researchers saw the two crystals interact as they hit the helium.
Although the crystals were stored at low temperatures, they appear to be much more versatile in terms of the temperatures at which they can operate.
“We already know that they also exist at room temperature,” says Autti. The team published their results in Nature Communication.
Outlook: Time Crystals for Future Devices?
While the recent study is the first to point to the existence of time crystals in the real world, it also points to significant implications for future technological development. For example, time crystals can be used to run quantum computers at room temperature, while currently most quantum computers computers must be stored at extremely low temperatures in order to function and are extremely fragile.
While there is still a long way to go to fully unlocking the potential of time crystals, they may one day help enable more stable and versatile quantum machines and thereby significantly advance the field of quantum physics in general.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and Science Communicator at JILA (a collaboration between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse and quantum technology. You can find more of her work on her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/