MIT researchers discover a new kind of magnetism

December 20, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Following up on earlier theoretical predictions, MIT researchers have now demonstrated experimentally the existence of a fundamentally new kind of magnetic behavior, adding to the two previously known states of magnetism.

Ferromagnetism -- the simple magnetism of a bar magnet or compass needle -- has been known for centuries. In a second type of magnetism, antiferromagnetism, the magnetic fields of the ions within a metal or alloy cancel each other out. In both cases, the materials become magnetic only when cooled below a certain critical temperature. The prediction and discovery of antiferromagnetism -- the basis for the read heads in today's computer hard disks -- won Nobel Prizes in physics for Louis Neel in 1970 and for MIT professor emeritus Clifford Shull in 1994.

"We're showing that there is a third fundamental state for magnetism," says MIT professor of physics Young Lee. The experimental work showing the existence of this new state, called a quantum spin liquid (QSL), is reported this week in the journal Nature, with Lee as the senior author and Tianheng Han, who earned his PhD in physics at MIT earlier this year, as lead author.

The QSL is a solid crystal, but its magnetic state is described as liquid: Unlike the other two kinds of magnetism, the magnetic orientations of the individual particles within it fluctuate constantly, resembling the constant motion of molecules within a true liquid.

Finding the evidence

There is no static order to the magnetic orientations, known as magnetic moments, within the material, Lee explains. "But there is a strong interaction between them, and due to quantum effects, they don't lock in place," he says.

Although it is extremely difficult to measure, or prove the existence, of this exotic state, Lee says, "this is one of the strongest experimental data sets out there that [does] this. What used to just be in theorists' models is a real physical system."

Philip Anderson, a leading theorist, first proposed the concept in 1987, saying that this state could be relevant to high-temperature superconductors, Lee says. "Ever since then, physicists have wanted to make such a state," he adds. "It's only in the past few years that we've made progress."

The material itself is a crystal of a mineral called herbertsmithite. Lee and his colleagues first succeeded in making a large, pure crystal of this material last year -- a process that took 10 months -- and have since been studying its properties in detail.

"This was a multidisciplinary collaboration, with physicists and chemists," Lee explains. "You need both ... to synthesize the material and study it with advanced physics techniques. Theorists were also crucial to this."

Through its experiments, the team made a significant discovery, Lee says: They found a state with fractionalized excitations, which had been predicted by some theorists but was a highly controversial idea. While most matter has discrete quantum states whose changes are expressed as whole numbers, this QSL material exhibits fractional quantum states. In fact, the researchers found that these excited states, called spinons, form a continuum. This observation, they say in their Nature paper, is "a remarkable first."

Scattering neutrons

To measure this state, the team used a technique called neutron scattering, which is Lee's specialty. To actually carry out the measurements, they used a neutron spectrometer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.

The results, Lee says, are "really strong evidence of this fractionalization" of the spin states. "That's a fundamental theoretical prediction for spin liquids that we are seeing in a clear and detailed way for the first time."

It may take a long time to translate this "very fundamental research" into practical applications, Lee says. The work could possibly lead to advances in data storage or communications, he says -- perhaps using an exotic quantum phenomenon called long-range entanglement, in which two widely separated particles can instantaneously influence each other's states. The findings could also bear on research into high-temperature superconductors, and could ultimately lead to new developments in that field, he says.

"We have to get a more comprehensive understanding of the big picture," Lee says. "There is no theory that describes everything that we're seeing."
-end-
In addition to Lee and Han, the work was carried out by J.S. Helton of NIST, research scientist Shaoyan Chu of MIT's Center for Materials Science and Technology, MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera, Jose Rodriguez-Rivera of NIST and the University of Maryland, and Colin Broholm of Johns Hopkins University. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Written by David Chandler, MIT News Office

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Related Physics Articles from Brightsurf:

Helium, a little atom for big physics
Helium is the simplest multi-body atom. Its energy levels can be calculated with extremely high precision only relying on a few fundamental physical constants and the quantum electrodynamics (QED) theory.

Hyperbolic metamaterials exhibit 2T physics
According to Igor Smolyaninov of the University of Maryland, ''One of the more unusual applications of metamaterials was a theoretical proposal to construct a physical system that would exhibit two-time physics behavior on small scales.''

Challenges and opportunities for women in physics
Women in the United States hold fewer than 25% of bachelor's degrees, 20% of doctoral degrees and 19% of faculty positions in physics.

Indeterminist physics for an open world
Classical physics is characterized by the equations describing the world.

Leptons help in tracking new physics
Electrons with 'colleagues' -- other leptons - are one of many products of collisions observed in the LHCb experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

Has physics ever been deterministic?
Researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Vienna and the University of Geneva, have proposed a new interpretation of classical physics without real numbers.

Twisted physics
A new study in the journal Nature shows that superconductivity in bilayer graphene can be turned on or off with a small voltage change, increasing its usefulness for electronic devices.

Physics vs. asthma
A research team from the MIPT Center for Molecular Mechanisms of Aging and Age-Related Diseases has collaborated with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, France, and Germany to determine the spatial structure of the CysLT1 receptor.

2D topological physics from shaking a 1D wire
Published in Physical Review X, this new study propose a realistic scheme to observe a 'cold-atomic quantum Hall effect.'

Helping physics teachers who don't know physics
A shortage of high school physics teachers has led to teachers with little-to-no training taking over physics classrooms, reports show.

Read More: Physics News and Physics Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.