Scientists Create New Form of Matter

FOSS Newsletter Staff
March 17, 2006 | Science News

We experience the three basic forms of matter—solid, liquid, and gas— every dayas we go about our lives. But scientists have described other forms of matter that are unusual, to say the least. In January 2004 scientists produced a new form of matter. They call the new form "fermionic condensates."

Most of us know the properties of ordinary solids, liquids, and gases. We learned those in elementary school. Solids resist changing shape and have a constant volume. Liquids flow, they're hard to compress, and their shape can change to fit any container. Gases are compressible; they can change shape and volume.

Before the creation of fermionic condensates, two other forms of matter were identified: plasma and Bose-Einstein condensate, or BEC. Plasma is gaslike and composed of atoms that have been ripped apart into ions and electrons. The Sun is made of plasma. Plasmas are usually very hot and need to be stored in magnetic bottles.

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) were discovered in 1995. They exist when scientists chill particles called bosons to very low temperatures. The cold bosons join together to form a superparticle that is more like a wave than an ordinary speck of matter. BECs are very fragile. Light travels through them very slowly.

Fermionic condensates are also cold (hence the name "condensate"). Deborah Jin, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at the University of Colorado, created the new form by cooling a cloud of 500,000 potassium-40 atoms to less than a millionth of a degree above absolute zero. Fermionic condensates probably flow without viscosity, but that's about all that scientists know about their properties. Fermionic condensates are so new that scientists have not discovered all of their properties.

BECs and fermionic condensates are probably related, although they are made of different particles. Scientists describe the bosons in BECs as sociable. That is, they like to get together. Fermions, the particles in fermionic condensates, are antisocial. But Jin and her group found a way around their antisocial behavior. They came up with a "Cupid"—a magnetic field that caused loner fermions to pair up and then pair up with other pairs.

Why is the new form of matter important? It's related to superconductivity. The new form of matter might allow the production of superconductors to produce cheaper, cleaner electricity and the construction of levitating trains and ultra-fast computers. It may even play a role in the establishment of a permanent base on the Moon.

With fermionic condensates, six forms of matter have now been identified. But that number is still being debated by physicists. Some suggest that liquid crystals, glass, ferromagnets, and other forms might still be added to the list. They're not sure that BECs and fermionic condensates belong on the list with solids, liquids, and gases. The debate continues.