A new type of magnetism exhibited by a new state of mater could boost data storage technology and even revolutionize traditionally finicky superconductors, MIT researchers claim. The team, led by Young S. Lee, managed to create a so-called quantum spin liquid (QSL), previously only the stuff of theory, which demonstrates a third state of magnetism, where the electron's fields are constantly in flux and interacting with each other. In fact, they could well lead to a brand new form of communication, using quantum entanglement.
Quantum spin liquid may be called "liquid" but in fact it's a crystalline form; it's the magnetic state of the electronics which make it up which is changeable. The MIT team grew a sample of herbertsmithite, a theorized substance which had yet to be created in a lab, and then used neutron scattering to confirm that it is, in fact, a QSL substance.
Changing magnetic states commonly fall under the headings of ferromagnetic and antiferromagnetic; the former describes the simple magnetism used in a compass, while the latter has fields within the metal or alloy that cancel each other out. It's antiferromagnetism that allows for platter-based hard-drives.
In the QSL, the magnetism state of the electronics is constantly changing, "but there is a strong interaction between them, and due to quantum effects, they don’t lock in place" Lee says of the research. However, it's those quantum behaviors that could lead to the most groundbreaking development of all: long-range quantum entanglement.
In such a situation, the researchers say, "two widely separated particles can instantaneously influence each other’s states"; in short, you could have one particle on Earth and another many light years away, but changing the state of one would instantly trigger a comparable change in the other. Until now, it's been the stuff of science-fiction - spanning the galaxy with a communication system that does not suffer from light-speed lag - but according to Lee and his team, it could be feasible.
As for the superconductors, which exhibit zero electrical resistance and are able to maintain a current with no applied voltage, Lee suggests the new magnetic form could remove one of the biggest hinderances: the requirement for extremely low temperatures. Currently, superconductors require cooling to around -200 degrees centigrade, but the QSL behaviors indicate new types with far more conservative temperature demands.
Still, there's plenty of work to be done before we're talking across vast distances or squeezing more data density onto tinier drives. The research is "very fundamental" at the moment, Lee points out, and lacks even a clear model to explain all of its elements. "There is no theory that describes everything that we’re seeing" he says.