Physicists from the University of Cambridge and an international group of researchers discovered evidence of a strange state of matter that was first predicted 40 years ago, but never tangibly observed. Prior to the study published online Monday in the journal Nature Materials, electrons were considered "indivisible" building blocks of life, but when they are in a mysterious "quantum spin liquid" phase, electrons begin to break into fractional particles and start to behave abnormally.
Using a technique called neutron scattering in a two-dimensional material similar to the structure of graphene, the researchers were able to measure the "fingerprint" of these fractional particles called Majorana fermions.
Electrons in magnetic material typically behave like bar magnets; as the temperature cools toward absolute zero, electron poles are supposed to gradually face the same direction. However, when the electrons are in a spin liquid phase, thanks to the presence of Majorana fermions, the patterns become erratic.
"Until recently, we didn't even know what the experimental fingerprints of a quantum spin liquid would look like," Dmitry Kovrizhin, one of the paper's co-authors, said. "One thing we've done in previous work is to ask, if I were performing experiments on a possible quantum spin liquid, what would I observe?"
Why does any of this matter to you? Those Majorana fermions can theoretically be isolated and then used to build quantum computers that are "far faster than conventional computers and would be able to perform calculations that could not be done otherwise."