"We're showing that there is a third fundamental state for magnetism," says MIT professor of physics Young Lee. The experimental work showed the existence of this new state, called a quantum spin liquid (QSL). 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.
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."
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.
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."
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.