Physicists Solve 40-Year Mystery of “Spin Liquids”

December 18, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

A drop of water creating ripples of the surface
Photo credit: Image Editor/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This mystery of matter has eluded even the top physicists for decades.

You may be wondering, “What the heck is spin liquid?”  If you have never heard of it, it is probably because the phenomenon was only known to exist in theory.  However, physics professor Takashi Imai and graduate student Mingxuan Fu from McMaster University, Canada — a university known for its strength in condensed-matter physics — have discovered that it does really exist.

So what does the term “spin liquid” mean?  It has to do with electrons belonging to the atoms of a manufactured (manmade) crystal.  When the crystal is supercooled to -457 degrees Fahrenheit (-272 degrees Celsius) and subjected to a magnetic pull 60,000 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field, electrons will no longer line up in predictable patterns.

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What this means is that, instead of forming known patterns, the electrons, which tend to settle in opposing (opposite sign) pairs similar to magnets, continuously try to resolve unmatched pairs, and never transition to a frozen state.  This results in an unresolved “liquid” state, which is a state of matter that has eluded physicists for more than 40 years.

The research, which was recently published in the journal Science, was completed in a MacMaster lab with specialized crystals manufactured by US colleagues at Stanford, MIT and the University of Chicago.

Imai has dedicated nine years to discovering spin liquid, and often spent nights sleeping on a couch in his lab to carefully watch over his experiments, which used nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (allowing for the observation of specific quantum mechanical magnetic properties) to search for the previously theorized state.  After experimenting with numerous combinations of crystals, magnetization, temperatures and angles of observation, he finally found what he was looking for in August 2014.  "With every data point we measured, we did a high five," Imai said.

“Confirming that spin-liquid does exist will not save lives or earn money on its own,” Imai said.  However it is a significant discovery in the field of condensed-matter physics that could one day lead to other discoveries with practical applications.

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