Simply Weird Stuff: Making Supersolids with Ultracold Gas Atoms

Jan 13, 2009
This is an artistic rendition of a supersolid made from two different types of ultracold atoms. The atoms are arranged in a regularly repeating pattern like a solid, but also can move frictionlessly like a superfluid. Yellow shape represents the electrical forces that the atoms feel, which vary in a regular pattern. Correspondingly. the density of the atoms (represented by the thickness of the spheres) also varies in a periodic fashion. Image: Ludwig Mathey, NIST/JQI

Physicists at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Maryland have proposed a recipe for turning ultracold “boson” atoms—the ingredients of Bose-Einstein condensates—into a “supersolid,” an exotic state of matter that behaves simultaneously as a solid and a friction-free superfluid. While scientists have found evidence for supersolids in complex liquid helium mixtures, a supersolid formed from such weakly interacting gas atoms would be simpler to understand, potentially providing clues for making a host of new “quantum materials” whose bizarre properties could expand physicists’ notions of what is possible with matter.

First theorized in 1970, a supersolid displays the essential characteristics of a solid, with atoms arranged in regularly repeating patterns like that of a crystal lattice, and of a superfluid, with the particles flowing frictionlessly and without losing any energy. Able to exist only at low temperatures, a supersolid behaves very differently from objects in the everyday world.

“If you add more clothing to a spinning washing machine, you increase the mass of its rim, and the machine needs to exert a greater force to make the wheel reverse direction,” explains lead author Ludwig Mathey. “But in a supersolid washing machine, some of the clothes would mysteriously hover in space, staying stationary as the washer spins and making it easier for the wheel to reverse direction. Moreover, these hovering, frictionless clothes would form a predictable pattern—such as frictionless socks alternating with frictionless shirts—just as atoms arrange themselves in a repeating pattern in a crystal.”

In 2004, Moses Chan and Eun-Seong Kim of Pennsylvania State University published a groundbreaking experiment on helium at low temperatures and gathered evidence for a supersolid phase. However, the interpretation of their observations has considerable uncertainties due to the complex nature of the particular system used in their experiments.

Now physicists Ludwig Mathey, Ippei Danshita and Charles Clark have identified a technique for making a simpler-to-understand supersolid, using two species of ultracold atoms confined in an optical lattice, a “web of light” that traps atoms in regular positions. In a paper* to be published in Physical Review A, the JQI team identifies conditions under which a cloud of ultracold atoms of two species (such as rubidium and sodium, or two slightly different forms of rubidium) can spontaneously condense into a state in which there is crystalline structure in the relative positions of atoms, e.g. a chain in which the two different types of atoms alternate regularly, but in which the entire cloud exhibits the frictionless, superfluid properties of a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). This remains hard to visualize in familiar terms—the accompanying image shows an artist’s conception of it—but the team identified clear experimental signatures (essentially photographs of the cloud), which could verify the simultaneous existence of these two seemingly incompatible properties.

The underlying technologies of optical lattices and Bose-Einstein condensation were pioneered at NIST and have sparked a renaissance in atomic physics with applications to NIST’s fundamental measurement missions, such as time and frequency standards and improved sensors of magnetic and gravitational forces. The supersolid is an example of a further direction of research in ultracold atomic physics: the design of quantum materials with fundamental properties not previously found in familiar matter.


* L. Mathey, I. Danshita and C. W. Clark, Creating a supersolid in one-dimensional Bose mixtures. Physical Review A. Published as a Rapid Communication on Jan. 12, 2009.

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology

Explore further: Boron-based atomic clusters mimic rare-earth metals

Related Stories

A closer look at the perfect fluid

Oct 02, 2014

By combining data from two high-energy accelerators, nuclear scientists have refined the measurement of a remarkable property of exotic matter known as quark-gluon plasma. The findings reveal new aspects ...

How your smartphone got so smart

Sep 16, 2013

In 1947, the Cold War, David Letterman, and the CIA were born; the future Queen Elizabeth got married; and a U.S. postage stamp cost 3 cents. That was also the year the seed that would eventually grow into ...

Recommended for you

Boron-based atomic clusters mimic rare-earth metals

Apr 17, 2015

Rare Earth elements, found in the f-block of the periodic table, have particular magnetic and optical properties that make them valuable commodities. This has been particularly true over the last thirty years ...

Accurately counting ions from laboratory radiation exposure

Apr 15, 2015

Thermoluminescence is used extensively in archaeology and the earth sciences to date artifacts and rocks. When exposed to radiation, quartz emits light proportional to the energy it absorbs. Replicating the very low dose ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 13, 2009
The supersolidity is an superfluid analogy of so called ice regelation. The ice melts at phase interface a well bellow zero temperature. As the result, thin wire can pass through ice block rather freely, glaciers flows under pressure and the iron needle slides without friction along surface of ice. The cracking sound of fresh snow is the manifestation of ballistic mechanism of surface transport of water molecules, analogous to balistic motion of electrons in thin layers of graphene - a manifestation of low space-time distance scale superfluidity.

Supersolid hellium is the phenomena of the same cathegory, with the exception, the melted phase surrounding the crystal boundaries and dislocations is superfluous under elevated pressure. The snow made of frozen hellium flakes would behave like jerky fluid, if we could walk through it along bottom of hellium ocean covering the distant cold planet. Unfortunatelly, Brownian motion of hellium atoms in vacuum would restrict such experience to rather high pressure range only, as the liquid hellium never freeze at room pressure.
not rated yet Jan 13, 2009
Room temperature supersolids would be so AWESOME! No end to the practicle applications of efficiency and such forth. I want skis with supersolid edges. Go from zero to dead in 60 seconds flat.
not rated yet Jan 14, 2009
You can get liquid crystals, which is conceptually the same stuff - just not superfluous...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.