Researchers worldwide are developing new technologies for studying, documenting and triggering quantum phase transitions. Learning more about them could open up new possibilities in materials science, electronics and quantum computing. What makes these transitions unique from classical phase transitions? What approaches are scientists using to study them?
Quantum Phase Transitions vs. Classical Phase Transitions
Quantum phase transitions are the opposite of classical phase transitions. The most well-known classical transitions are those for water – when the temperature changes, it shifts from ice to liquid to vapor.
Quantum phase transitions aren’t triggered by changes in temperature, though. They only occur at absolute zero, which is impossible to achieve. Classical phase transitions halt entirely at absolute zero because no entropy is left to power them. Quantum particles need to be at this temperature to experience phase transitions.
Once at this temperature, other variations in physical properties, such as pressure or magnetic field, are used to spark a quantum phase transition. They can result in remarkable changes to materials, such as magnetizing something previously non-magnetic. However, there is no comprehensive record of what they can do due to the difficulty in observing and studying phase transitions.
Streamlined Quantum Computing Method
One of the main challenges of studying quantum phase transitions is the sheer scale of the math involved in creating them. Scientists are eyeing quantum computing to solve this challenge, but even computers struggle to tackle the necessary mathematics.
Researchers at the University of Chicago have developed a shortcut that allows quantum computers to simulate quantum phase transitions. Their technique streamlines the necessary equations, focusing only on the most important parts. Their low-data model resulted in simulated “maps” of all possible changes for multiple quantum systems with the same accuracy as more data-intensive approaches.
Melting Wigner Crystals
Wigner crystals are a unique material theorized by physicist Eugene Wigner in 1934 and first observed in 1979. A Wigner crystal is a metal that has been cooled to such an ultralow temperature that its electrons freeze, turning the metal into a nonconducting crystal. In this state, the crystalized metal will theoretically melt into a liquid through quantum fluctuations, combining classical and quantum phase transitions.
Researchers at Harvard University became the first in history to successfully document this crystal-to-liquid transition in experiments. They used nanoscale semiconductors and exciton spectroscopy to observe the phase transition, indicating a promising new method for potentially monitoring more types of quantum phase transitions.
Hybrid State Crystals
Hybrid state materials intrigue scientists since they could potentially revolutionize many fields, such as electronics and materials science. Quantum phase transitions allow them to create materials that retain characteristics of one type of phase while gaining attributes of another.
Researchers at Osaka Metropolitan University in Japan have discovered a hybrid state for a chemical compound that can retain its crystal structure while also displaying characteristics of an amorphous material. These are technically solids but behave more like liquids, lacking the structural order characteristic of crystals.
The team accomplished this by lowering the temperature of the compound and triggering a quantum phase transition using atomic vibration patterns.
Applications for Quantum Phase Transitions
What are the benefits of studying quantum phase transitions? The studies above show that progress is being made in the field, but it requires significant work, time and funding. However, these efforts could be well worth it if they lead to developing materials that solve some of today’s biggest technical challenges.
For example, heat plays a crucial role in battery and electronics performance. Engineers have developed innovative solutions to manage heat to keep electronics running well, including utilizing classical phase transitions. In these systems, heat is controlled and offset by turning liquid water into vapor.
Heat isn’t just bad for electronics’ performance – it also sucks away some of the energy transferred through conducting materials. Studying quantum phase transitions could potentially lead to developing materials that don’t lose power to heat and don’t warm up so easily.
In addition to advances in materials science, quantum phase transitions are vital to developing the understanding of quantum mechanics and physics as a whole. This is critical to developing quantum computing.
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