Scientists Have Created a Supersolid State of Matter in a New Dimension

Opening a new spectrum of quantum weirdness.
Brad Bergan
An artist's rendering of a two-dimensional supersolid.Universität Innsbruck

It's time for an upgrade.

Most of us are familiar with the three common states of matter, solid, liquid, and gas, in addition to the uncommon fourth one: plasma. But ongoing research with a novel exotic state called a "supersolid," which was verified a few years ago, has reached a critical impasse: Scientists have created it in a new two-dimensional form, for the first time, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

And this opens up an entirely new spectrum of quantum weirdness.

Upgrade to two-dimensional supersolids

Note well: supersolids aren't a powered-up version of solids. Fundamentally, they are solids whose atoms are arranged into a rigid, crystalline structure, much like typical solids. But, bizarrely, supersolids can also flow with zero viscosity, similar to a superfluid, which feels like two paradoxical qualities to possess. Scientists had speculated this might be possible since the 1960s, and, in 2017, the material was experimentally confirmed. The (more) recent study saw a collection of research teams pool their resources to create supersolids with the help of another, different state of matter, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). These are composed of a low-density gas cloud of atoms cooled to temperatures approaching absolute zero. When they get this unconscionably cold, they exhibit baffling quantum quirks that aren't typically observed on these comparatively macro scales.

In these ultra-frosty cases, every atom in the BEC exists at every point inside the cloud, simultaneously, in a condition called delocalization. In earlier experiments, scientists created supersolids that existed in only one dimension, which meant they could only flow in one mediocre direction. But the research team from the Universität Innsbruck has provided the novel state of matter with an entire extra dimension to play in, which is like trading a string in for a dollar bill. This multi-dimensional BEC was created from dysprosium atoms, with magnetic interactions between the atoms leading to an autonomous arrangement into droplets, which themselves further self-organized into a grid. "Normally, you would think that each atom would be found in a specific droplet, with no way to get between them," said Study Author Matthew Norcia, in a New Atlas report.

Two-dimensional supersolids open a new range of quantum weirdness

"However, in the supersolid state, each particle is delocalized across all the droplets existing simultaneously in each droplet," added Norcia, in the report. "So basically, you have a system with a series of high-density regions (the droplets) that all share the same delocalized atoms." The research team also added that this breakthrough might enable physicists to examine an entirely new spectrum of quantum weirdness that we couldn't expect to see in the behavior of a one-dimensional supersolid. "For example, in a two-dimensional supersolid system, one can study how vortices form in the hole between several adjacent droplets."

"These vortices described in theory have not yet been demonstrated, but they represent an important consequence of superfluidity," added Norcia. The initial discovery of supersolids was accomplished by MIT researchers by combining traits of solid matter with those of superfluids. And, that only four years passed between the creation of a new state of matter and its upgrade to its new two-dimensional splendor speaks to the riches in scientific discovery awaiting those who wish to explore the quantum possibilities made available with this accomplishment.

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