I know what you’re thinking: “time crystal” sounds like something out of a fantasy movie starring creepy puppets and David Bowie. Hell, I’d pay to see it. While time crystals sound like something out of cheesy 1980’s sci-fi, physicists proposed earlier this year that such “time crystals” might theoretically exist.
Time crystals are a type of crystal which display strange quantum properties thanks to the physics phenomenon known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. Normally, matter in a ground state – no energy being inserted or extracted – displays atomic symmetry. Crystals, however, belong to a unique group of objects that includes magnets which do not display symmetry at their ground states. Researchers have speculated for years whether it could be possible to synthesize objects which display asymmetry not in space, but in time. In other words, a crystal which changes shape over time on its own, without any energy loss or gain. Now just this month, a team of researchers based at the University of Maryland announced that they have achieved creating such a crystal.
According to their pre-print publication on arXiv.org, the researchers believe that the fact that even such a small-scale experiment was successful means that larger time crystals with much broader applications might later be achieved as other physicists build upon this research:
Such a time crystal opens the door for studying systems with long-range spatial-temporal correlations and novel phases of matter that emerge under intrinsically non-equilibrium conditions.
The time crystal was created by trapping a line of Ytterbium ions ( 171Yb+) in an electromagnetic field. The ions were positioned so that the spin of each influenced the others. By using a laser to set the first ion spinning, researchers set of a chain reaction in which all of the ions remained spinning continuously without any further energy input.
Researchers believe that achieving this fourth-dimensional asymmetry is the first step towards creating larger time crystals that might even hint at the possibility perpetual motion. However, researchers have so far been unable to extract energy from the system. For now, though, the discovery marks a breakthrough for the development of quantum computing systems – you know, the kind that will one day turn all humans into batteries. At least we got to see these weird time crystals first.