New Study Shows the 'Hidden Phases' in Matter, All through the Power of Light

What if we had materials that could switch on and off in a trillionth of a second?

New Study Shows the 'Hidden Phases' in Matter, All through the Power of Light
On the left, extremely fast pulses of light excites atoms within the crystal structure (red arrows), which shifts the material into a new, ferroelectric phase. Felice Macera/ University of Pennsylvania

If we take the example of ice as a matter, it has over ten phases, meaning it has many ways of spatially arranging its atoms.

In a recent study, it was discovered that metal oxide has a 'hidden phase', which now gives the material a new ability to separate positive and negative charges. This is activated through extremely fast pulses of light. 


The research was led by MIT scientists Keith A. Nelson, Xian Li, and Edoardo Baldini. The findings were published in Science.

What is this useful for?

"It's opening a new horizon for rapid functional material reconfiguration," said Rappe, who collaborated in the study.

What Rappe means is that their work has the ability to create materials whose properties can be turned on or off in a trillionth of a second--by merely flicking a switch. 

What's more, this discovery could also be used to change an insulator into a metal, or its magnetic polarity could be flipped. 

Strong working rapport creates results

Nelson and Rappe had previously worked together on the project, and already had the basis of the theory for the study. Nelson has experience using light to turn phase transitions into solid materials, and Rappe has knowledge in the development of atomic-level computer models. 

"[Nelson is] the experimentalist, and we're the theorists," said Rappe. "He can report what he thinks is happening based on spectra, but the interpretation is speculative until we provide a strong physical understanding of what happened."

A perfect combination for the study. 

With their solid history of working closely together, Nelson and Rappe could easily  move between their theoretical simulations and their experiments, until they found the perfect experiment that proved their theory to be true.

"It's the dream of every scientist: to hatch an idea together with a friend, to map out the consequence of that idea, then to have a chance to translate it into something in the lab, it's extremely gratifying. It makes us think we're on the right track towards the future," said Rappe.

Working together, they can continue to hone their study and make more discoveries. 

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