Breakthrough for Science as MIT Researchers Create a New Form of Matter

A new form of matter has been created by MIT researchers that combine the properties of both solids and superfluids. It was done using lasers to manipulate a superfluid gas called Bose-Einstein condensate. In doing so, the team managed to change the change the condensate into a quantum state of matter that was rigid yet flowed without viscosity, like a superfluid.

Team leader Wolfgang Ketterle, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at MIT said, “It is counterintuitive to have a material which combines superfluidity and solidity.  If your coffee was superfluid and you stirred it, it would continue to spin around forever.”  Although the idea of supersolids is not a new one, it hadn’t yet been fully explored in a lab.  Using laser cooling and evaporative cooling methods, the team went about their experiments.

Back in 2001, Ketterle co-discovered Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC’s).  He said, “The challenge was now to add something to the BEC to make sure it developed a shape or form beyond the shape of the ‘atom trap,’ which is the defining characteristic of a solid.” As part of the research, the team introduced what is known as “spin-orbit coupling.” Here, some lasers are used to make a mix of the two BEC’s while others then transferred atoms between the two condensates in what’s known as a “spin flip.”

The team accomplished their observations of the condensate by using yet another laser where the density modulation diffracted the beam of it. “The recipe for the supersolid is simple, but it was a big challenge to precisely align all the laser beams and to get everything stable to observe the stripe phase,” said Junru Li, an MIT graduate student who took part in the research. At the moment, the supersolid only ever exists at very low temperatures and under highly vacuumed conditions, but further research is due to continue as the team looks to map out what’s possible in nature.

Other groups also working with this new supersolid include a team from Switzerland who is looking for an alternative way of turning BEC’s into supersolids using mirrors.

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