We have always known matter to exist in three primary states; solid, liquid, and gas. But what if we told you that physicists recently created the fourth state of matter? It’s called the quantum spin liquid, a name that makes you think of it as a high-intelligence element existing someplace far away in an unknown galaxy.
Yet, it is here, on our very planet, thanks to a team of over 15 leading scientists bent upon proving a 1973 theory by Philip W. Anderson to be true.
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In its solid state, matter consists of atoms and molecules that are connected in a fixed, repetitive structure, giving it the ability to hold a shape. In liquids, on the other hand, the molecules do not exist in a fixed structure, allowing them to change shape (liquid) or even move (gases).
However, in the quantum spin liquid state, electrons constantly change and fluctuate inside a magnetic material at low temperatures, creating an actual magnetic mess.
Regular magnets contain electrons that spin in the same direction, either up or down, resulting in magnetism. But in quantum spin liquids, another electron is introduced that throws the entire balancing act, well, off balance.
What does that mean? It means the result is a frantic state of magnetism where the electrons cannot spin in a single direction.
This erratic state of matter might seem pointless to us, but for scientists conducting the study, it was like hitting the gold pot at the end of the rainbow. “It is a very special moment in the field,” Harvard quantum physicist Mikhail Lukin told Science Alert. “You can really touch, poke, and prod at this exotic state and manipulate it to understand its properties… it’s a new state of matter that people have never been able to observe.”
Scientists are hoping the development of quantum spin liquids will prove critical to advancing quantum computing. Quantum computers rely on quantum bits or qubits. With quantum spin liquids, researchers hope to develop topological qubits that offer enhanced protection against noise and interference, something that the delicate nature of quantum computing could really benefit from.
The discovery has excited scientists, as explained by Harvard physicist Giulia Semeghini. “Learning how to create and use such topological qubits would represent a major step toward the realization of reliable quantum computers,” she told Science Alert.
However, researchers agree that much more research and exploration is needed to make the topological qubits work reliably.
“We show the very first steps on how to create this topological qubit, but we still need to demonstrate how you can actually encode it and manipulate it,” Semeghini was quoted as saying by Phys.org.