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New state of matter detected in a two-dimensional material

"Until recently, we didn’t even know what the experimental fingerprints of a quantum spin liquid would look like," said researcher Dmitry Kovrizhin.

By Brooks Hays
New state of matter detected in a two-dimensional material
A diagram shows the excitement of electrons, triggering a new state of matter, in a graphene-like 2D lattice structure. Photo by Cambridge University

CAMBRIDGE, England, April 4 (UPI) -- A team of quantum physicists has discovered a mysterious new state of matter in a two-dimensional material. Scientists are calling the state "quantum spin liquid."

The novel state was predicted 40 years ago. Now, researchers have direct evidence.

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Quantum spin liquid is characterized by the breaking apart of electrons. The electron fragments are called Majorana fermions. While observing particle behavior inside a graphene-like 2D material, scientists at the University of Cambridge recorded the signatures of these fractional particles.

What they saw matched the predictions of theoretical models for a quantum spin liquid.

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The mysterious state explains anomalies inside magnetic materials. Electrons in magnetic materials each behave like miniature bar magnets. As a material is cooled, the electrons each line up in accordance with magnetic north -- all pointing the same direction.

This doesn't happen in magnetic materials boasting quantum spin liquid, where electrons refuse to align. Instead, their quantum fluctuations result in a soup of entangled electrons.

"Until recently, we didn't even know what the experimental fingerprints of a quantum spin liquid would look like," researcher Dmitry Kovrizhin, a physicist at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, said in a press release. "One thing we've done in previous work is to ask, if I were performing experiments on a possible quantum spin liquid, what would I observe?"

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Research led by Johannes Knolle in 2014 -- also of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory -- offered a theoretical blueprint for the signature of electron fractionalization.

There's now hard proof of Knolle's predictions.

"This is a new addition to a short list of known quantum states of matter," said Knolle.

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"It's an important step for our understanding of quantum matter," said Kovrizhin. "It's fun to have another new quantum state that we've never seen before -- it presents us with new possibilities to try new things."

The discovery was detailed in a new paper, published this week in the journal Nature Materials.

Researchers believe these fractional particles, or fermions, could be harnessed for improved quantum computing power.

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