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Researchers Have Created World’s First Time Crystal: New Matter Form

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Credit: E. Edwards/JQI
Researchers have created the world’s first time crystal, an exotic state of matter that combines the rigidity of an ordinary crystal with a regular rhythm in time. The atoms in a time crystal never settle down, known as thermal equilibrium, a state in which they all have the same amount of heat. It’s a new class of matter, called non-equilibrium phases, that have been predicted but until now have remained out of reach. Physicists are eager to explore this exotic new realm.

“This opens the door to a whole new world of nonequilibrium phases,” says Andrew Potter, an assistant professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin. “We’ve taken these theoretical ideas that we’ve been poking around for the last couple of years and actually built it in the laboratory. Hopefully, this is just the first example of these, with many more to come.”

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Some nonequilibrium phases of matter may prove useful for storing or transferring information in quantum computers.
Andrew is part of the team led by researchers at the University of Maryland who successfully created the first time crystal from ions, or electrically charged atoms, of the element ytterbium. By applying just the right electrical field, the researchers levitated 10 of these ions above a surface like a magician’s assistant. Next, they whacked the atoms with a laser pulse, causing them to flip head over heels. Then they hit them again and again in a regular rhythm. That set up a pattern of flips that repeated in time.
Crucially, he noted, the pattern of atom flips repeated only half as fast as the laser pulses. This would be like pounding on a bunch of piano keys twice a second and notes coming out only once a second. This weird quantum behavior was a signature that he and his colleagues predicted, and helped confirm that the result was indeed a time crystal.
A team led by Chris Monroe of the University of Maryland in College Park built a time crystal, and Potter and Yao helped confirm that it indeed had the properties they predicted.
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