Quantum “time crystals” coupled for the first time


A famous thought experiment in science is based on the feasibility of building a perpetual motion machine – a device that keeps working without external input.

But like many other concepts, scientists are turning to the crazy world of quantum mechanics to make the impossible possible. Quantum properties that make perpetuum mobile a reality could find use in future technologies, new research finds.

“Time Crystals” are a newly discovered phase of matter. Like other crystal structures found in rocks and metals, time crystal atoms are arranged in a regularly repeating pattern or “lattice”.

The element “time” has nothing to do with time travel – unfortunately. Time crystal atoms are in endless motion, even with no external energy input, seemingly breaking the laws of physics. The atoms vibrate or rotate constantly.

More on the Physics: ‘Beyond Quantum’ connection hints at more secure encryption and future universal theory

New research published in nature communication, describes the formation of the first two-body time crystal system. The authors argue that not only do the coupled time crystals behave exactly as they theoretically should, the coupled system also offers opportunities for future technologies.

“Everyone knows that perpetual motion machines are impossible. In quantum physics, however, perpetuum mobile is fine as long as we keep our eyes closed,” explains the paper’s lead author, Dr. Samuli Autti, from Lancaster University in the UK. “By sneaking through this rift, we can create time crystals.”

The international team, which included institutions from Britain, Russia and Finland, created time crystals by cooling helium-3 – a rare isotope of helium with one missing neutron – to 0.0001K, or -273.15C, within a 10,000 stel degrees above absolute zero. At this temperature, the helium-3 creates a superfluid, which is a zero-viscosity liquid.

Once created, the two time crystals formed in the superfluid were brought together to interact.

Time crystals were first theorized by Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek in 2012 and identified in 2016. Ever since they were first made, time crystals have puzzled physicists, and a potential use for the strange, wriggling substance has eluded them.

“It turns out that putting two of these together works beautifully, even though time crystals aren’t supposed to exist. And we already know that they also exist at room temperature,” says Autti.

A two-level system is the basic building block of a quantum computer. The fact that coupled time crystal dynamics follows the textbook description of a two-level system (with a bit of quantum spice) is an exciting development. The authors suggest that this could mean that time crystals could be key to the development of room-temperature quantum computers.

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