By Alexa Erickson | Collective Evolution
Objects that take up space and have mass are considered matter, which means that everything around you is made up of matter, including yourself and the sandwich in your hand.
Sound like the beginning of a lecture from your childhood science textbook? That’s because we’ve been taught that matter as we know it is as fundamental and broad as this.
But new research reveals that maybe “matter” isn’t so set in stone.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have produced a brand new form of matter called a supersolid. Until this creation, physicists had an idea supersolids might be possible, but hadn’t analyzed them in the laboratory.
A supersolid combines the properties of solids with those of superfluids.
To create it, the team of researchers used lasers to manipulate a superfluid gas called a Bose-Einstein condensate into a quantum phase of matter that has a rigid structure like a solid, but is able to flow with viscosity, like a superfluid.
This phase of matter, entirely contradictory, could provide valuable information currently unknown regarding superfluids and superconductors. Such insights could help improve technologies like superconducting magnets and sensors, as well as efficient energy transport.
“It is counterintuitive to have a material which combines superfluidity and solidity,” explained team leader Wolfgang Ketterle, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at MIT. “If your coffee was superfluid and you stirred it, it would continue to spin around forever.”
The researchers used a combination of laser cooling and evaporative cooling methods co-developed by Ketterle to cool atoms of sodium to nanokelvin temperatures. Atoms of sodium, called bosons, were cooled to near absolute zero, which caused them to form a superfluid state of dilute gas known as Bose-Einstein condensate, or BEC.
“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,” says Ketterle, who co-discovered BECs.