Super-chilled quantum helium could allow for ‘time machine’ to early universe

16 Jan 2019

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Researchers working with helium-3 have found a way to recreate the earliest days of the universe right here on Earth.

Our attempts to discover what happened in the infant stages of the universe have been somewhat limited so far, with most of our knowledge coming from our most powerful radio telescopes getting a glimpse of what came before in deep space.

However, it may soon be possible to create a ‘time machine’, whereby quantum structures at super-chilled temperatures can recreate the possible conditions of the early universe, right here on Earth.

The key element involved in this breakthrough was helium, whose unique properties means it stays a liquid at atmospheric pressure, even when chilled down to absolute zero. Also, helium becomes a ‘superfluid’ at sufficiently low temperatures, meaning it can flow forever without losing any energy.

When confined into a nanostructure volume, researchers can use superfluid phases of the isotope helium-3 – believed to exist in abundance on the moon – to study effects such as half-quantum vortices. Within this, superfluid whirlpools strictly control the amount of helium as per the rules of quantum physics.

“We initially thought that the half-quantum vortices would disappear when we lowered the temperature. It turns out that half-quantum vortices actually survive as the helium-3 sample is cooled below half a millikelvin – instead, a nontopological wall appears,” said Jere Mäkinen, lead author of the study.

Unlike a physical wall, a nontopological wall alters the magnetic properties of helium. Similar to the superfluid found in a nanostructure, some cosmologists believe the entire universe experienced symmetry-breaking phase transitions in the first few milliseconds after the Big Bang.

Benefits for quantum computing

The theory goes that quantum fluctuations or topological defects – like domain walls and quantum vortices – in the ultra-condensed universe were frozen in place as the universe expanded.

Over time, these frozen fluctuations became the galaxies we see today, so being able to create these objects in the lab may allow us to understand a great deal more about the universe and why it formed the way it did.

The researchers said an added bonus is that the structure of these hurricane-like defects also provides a potential model for the study of topological quantum computing.

“While liquid helium-3 would be too hard and expensive to maintain as a material for a working computer, it give us a working model to study phenomena that could be used in more accessible future material,” Mäkinen said.

The researchers’ findings have been published to Nature Communications.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic