A Time Crystal Survived a Whopping 40 Minutes

A Time Crystal Survived a Whopping 40 Minutes

A team of physicists in Germany managed to create a time crystal that demonstrably lasts 40 minutes—10 million times longer than other known crystals—and could persist for even longer.

Ordinary crystals, by which I mean crystals in macro-scale space, are solids whose atoms are arranged in a highly organized pattern. Diamonds, snowflakes, and table salts are all crystalline. Time crystals are structures whose lowest-energy states have highly ordered patterns (periodicity) in space and time. Time crystals were predicted to also have their properties suddenly change at a given time, even without some external factors inducing such a change.

In this way, time crystals break time-translation symmetry—the idea that a chunk of stable matter will not change (without external factors) if you drag it to a different point in time. Time crystals change on a metaphysical whim, regardless of when they are. You can read all about time crystals here, for a better understanding of what they are and why they’re useful.

The recent team of physicists managed to make a time crystal that lasted superlatively long: 40 minutes. The crystal is made of indium gallium arsenide, or a combination of indium atoms and gallium arsenide, a semiconductor. Their research was published last week in Nature Physics.

First proposed in 2012, time crystals have been crafted in lab settings since. A continuous time crystal was reported in a Bose-Einstein condensate, a type of supercooled matter that operates in a quantum state, by a team of physicists in June 2022. But that time crystal only lasted a few milliseconds. Again: the recent crystal lasted 40 minutes, and the team believes it could live even longer.

The new time crystal is in an electron-nuclear spin system. The team excited the material with polarized laser light, polarizing the spins of the nuclei in the system. This caused the indium gallium arsenide to produce oscilations, rendering it “equivalent to a time crystal,” according to a TU Dortmund University release.

“Based on these results, we can imagine this type of hardware becoming a compact, highly flexible on-chip frequency standard,” the team wrote in their paper.

The time crystal wasn’t perfect. There were parts of the material where the team said it “melts,” or loses its special characteristics that render it a time crystal. Though the time crystal lasted for 40 minutes, the researchers said they could “safely conclude that the TC lifetime is at least a few hours, perhaps even longer.”

In other words, there’s plenty more physics where that came from, so buckle your quantum seatbelt.

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