Time crystals, originally theorised by MIT physicist and Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek in 2012, have now been created by two independent scientific teams from Berkeley and Harvard, using different methods but gaining the same results.

What are they?

Time crystals are a new kind of matter. Normal matter is stationary at its ground state (the lowest state of energy for that matter). When at ground state, normal matter doesn’t move until a force is applied to it. Time crystals, however, move at their ground state. At ground state they have a perpetual motion and can move without a force being applied to them. This means that time crystals are always unstable at an atomic level.

Time crystals are the first non-equilibrium matter ever to be created. Normally crystals’ atoms are arranged in lattices and duplicate their pattern through 3-dimensions of space. Time crystals duplicate their pattern through 3-dimensions of space and 1-dimension of time, meaning time crystal exist in 4-dimensions. Essentially, they are crystals that move through time, which are in motion at their lowest state of energy.

How did the scientists make time crystals?

Both teams used a different method to create the time crystals but got the same result. Berkeley used 10 ytterbium (Yb, atomic number 70) ions with the ions’ electrons spins entangled. Researchers then tried to interrupt their equilibrium by using a laser. They used one laser to flip the ions’ magnetic spin, causing a chain reaction with the other entangled ions. The ions were enclosed in a magnetic field made with a second laser. This process continued until all the ions were oscillating (spinning).

After a while the researchers noticed that the ions were reacting at a faster rate then they were being nudged by the laser, meaning the ions were moving at ground state without a force being applied – time crystals had been created. Harvard used a similar method but used nitrogen vacant centres (an impurity/defect in a diamond) instead of ytterbium ions and microwaves instead of lasers.

Why does this matter?

This is a huge breakthrough for science, potentially changing a lot about our understanding of quantum physics and how the universe and matter works at a fundamental level.

We don’t really have a practical use for these time crystals at the moment. Although it is believed that these crystals may have the correct properties to help in the advancement of new pioneering fields, for example quantum computing. Despite this, they are still a very exciting breakthrough in the world of science.