Highly exotic quantum liquid is doing something very unusual

23 Jan 2019

Image: © Mabire/Stock.adobe.com

In the hunt for new states of matter, researchers have found that a special metal is doing something rather strange at a quantum level.

Sometimes it takes a little time before scientific theories are proved in the lab, and a recent discovery made by a research team from the University of Liverpool in the UK and McMaster University in Canada is one such case.

Publishing its findings in Nature Physics, the team revealed that a metal oxide related to perovskite and made from the rare-Earth element terbium exhibits a quantum spin liquid state, a long-sought-after and unusual state of matter.

Using experimental technologies, including inelastic neutron scattering and muon spectroscopy, the team found that this exotic quantum state emerges from its local environment around the magnetic ions in the material. This discovery came as quite a surprise to researchers who never expected the metal oxide, TbInO3, to display such strange magnetic behaviour because of its crystal structure.

The quantum spin liquid state theory was first proposed more than 40 years ago by Nobel laureate Philip Anderson when he suggested magnetic moments behave like a liquid but don’t freeze, even at absolute zero.

‘Many more intriguing properties for us yet to uncover’

Giving rise to several extraordinary material properties, this discovery could lead to further exploration of new materials that may host this state of matter, with potential applications including quantum computing.

“When studying intricate quantum states of matter like the quantum spin liquid, carrying out one experiment often raises more questions than it can answer,” said Dr Lucy Clark of the University of Liverpool.

“In the case of TbInO3, however, the physics is particularly rich, and so we were especially driven to persevere. Our study shows that TbInO3 is a fascinating magnetic material, and one most likely to have many more intriguing properties for us yet to uncover.”

Elsewhere in the world of quantum research, researchers in Finland recently found that 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.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic