For decades, scientists have been fascinated by superfluids — materials under extreme conditions where the typical laws of matter break down and friction disappears entirely.
University of Pittsburgh Professor of Physics and Astronomy Vincent Liu and an international team of collaborators report the creation of a stable material that achieves long-sought-after and strange quantum properties. This “topological superfluid” could find use in a variety of futuristic technologies — and in the meantime will provide plenty of new questions for physicists to chew on.
“It’s a fundamental concept that might have a very huge impact to society in its application,” Liu said.
In his field of artificial materials, there’s a close interplay between two kinds of physicists: Those like Liu who specialize in theory use math and physics to imagine yet-undiscovered phenomena that could be useful for futuristic technologies, and others who design experiments that use contained, simplified systems of particles to try to create materials that act in the ways theorists predicted. It’s the feedback between these two groups that pushes the field forward.
Liu and his collaborators, a team composed of both theorists and experimentalists, have been pursuing a material that holds the useful properties of a superfluid regardless of shape and is also stable in the lab, a combination that has eluded researchers for years. The solution they arrived at was shining lasers in a honeycomb pattern on atoms. The way those lasers combine and cancel each other out in repeating patterns can coerce the atoms into interacting with one another in strange ways. The team published their results in Nature on Aug. 11.