Two Research Teams Have Independently Made a Real-Life Time Crystal

Since they were first theorized in 2012, time crystals have only existed on paper. Now, two teams have created them for the first time in a lab.

Mar 8 2017, 9:43pm

Two research teams from Harvard and the University of Maryland have published research papers today in Nature which detail how they have independently managed to create real time crystals for the first time in a laboratory setting.

Time crystals are a new phase of matter that was first described as a mathematical oddity by the Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek in 2012, in which the periodicity of a three-dimensional spatial crystal is extended into the fourth dimension: time. If this sounds mind blowing and nearly impossible to understand, that's because it is. To fully appreciate the magnitude of the Harvard and Maryland teams' work, I'd highly recommend checking out Motherboard's time crystal primer.

In any case, Wilczek's original idea for a time crystal, which he described as the "spontaneous emergence of a clock," looked suspiciously like a perpetual motion machine and despite the novelty of the idea, the underlying physics just didn't work out. It wasn't until 2015 that a group of researchers at Princeton University led by Shivaji Sondhi published research on how time crystals could be brought from the realm of theory into the lab.

Using this initial blueprint for a time crystal, and subsequent research done at Microsoft's Station Q laboratory at UC Santa Barbara, physicists at Harvard and the University of Maryland were both able to independently create a time crystal in their laboratories. Each team relied upon a different method based on the same underlying theory.

Read More: Okay, WTF is a Time Crystal

According to the paper published today by the Maryland team, they created a time crystal using ten trapped ytterbium ions lined up in a row, which they then hit with laser pulses to flip the spins of the ions at half the speed of the laser pulse—a periodicity that is the telltale mark of a bona fide time crystal. The Harvard group, on the other hand, created their time crystal using imperfections in a diamond, called nitrogen vacancies, and flipping the spins of these nitrogen atoms using a microwave field.

Just where this discovery will lead remains an open question. For now, researchers are still trying to wrap their heads around possible applications for this new phase of matter, but they suspect that, because it is a periodically driven system, it may be a good candidate for a nearly perfect memory system for quantum computers in the future.