Physicists around the world have long worked to solve the mysteries of quantum physics and how it works, and now, in a study of Lancaster Universitya team of researchers has discovered that ‘time crystals’, once considered an impossibility, may be real after all and obey quantum physics.
Background: what is a time crystal?
Time crystals are considered a arrangement atoms or particles that form regular repeating patterns over time. These crystals are the opposite of the more familiar concept of space crystals, which are just molecules or atoms arranged in patterns in space. Space crystals include things like diamonds, snowflakes, pearls, and even salt.
However, unlike space crystals, time crystals are much more difficult to design and prove. These crystals were once considered impossible, as they were composed of atoms in an endless train through time. However, recent work by physicists at Lancaster University may provide proof of time crystals with another long-questioned scientific topic: perpetual motion.
Analysis: Perpetual Motion Machines
Perpetual motion describes the phenomenon where a device that is set in motion continues indefinitely, without any additional energy input. Perpetual motion machines have fascinated scientists and inventors for decades, because these machines would maximize efficiency…if they were ever built. However, wAlthough there have been many attempts to create such machines, none to date have ever come to fruition, as the concept of perpetual motion is generally recognized to be in violation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
“Everyone knows that perpetual motion machines are impossible,” explained Dr. Samuli Autti, a professor at Lancaster University and lead author of the recent time crystal study.. Nonetheless, Autti and the team believed that time crystals were somewhat similar to the concept of perpetual motion, and the two might even be related in some way.
“In physics, perpetual motion is acceptable as long as we keep our eyes closed,” says Autti, adding that “by weaving through this fissure, we can create time crystals.”
To create the time crystals, the researchers used a rare isotope of helium called Helium-3. They cooled superfluid helium to near absolute zero Kelvin, then created a pair of time crystals inside the helium using quantum components similar to those found in a quantum computer. Next, the researchers observed the two crystals interact when they touched helium.
While the crystals have been kept at cold 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 Communication Nature.
Outlook: time crystals for future devices?
Although the recent study is the first to highlight the actual existence of time crystals, it also points to important implications for future technological development. For example, time crystals could be used to help run quantum computers at room temperature, whereas currently most quantum computers must be kept at extremely cold temperatures to operate and are extremely fragile.
Although there is still a long way to go to fully unlock the potential of time crystals, they could one day help facilitate more stable and versatile quantum machines, and thus significantly advance the field of quantum physics in his outfit.
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a Debrief Writer and Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado at Boulder and NIST). It focuses on deep technology, metaverse and quantum technology. You can find more of his work on his website: https://kennacastleberry.com/