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‘Time crystals’ created in two new types of materials

These crystals repeat their patterns at regular time intervals, not distances

7:00am, May 4, 2018
illustration of timer

TIME AFTER TIME  Scientists have created time crystals in two new types of materials. These crystals have patterns that repeat over regular time intervals, just as the arrangements of atoms in everyday crystals repeat periodically in space.

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It was only a matter of time.

A weird form of matter called a time crystal has made an appearance in two more types of materials, doubling the number of known time crystal habitats. In a typical crystal, its arrangement of atoms regularly repeats in space, such as the alternating sodium and chloride ions that make up a salt crystal. But time crystals’ patterns repeat themselves at regular time intervals. 

A team of scientists created a time crystal in a solid material called monoammonium phosphate, the researchers report in both the May 4 Physical Review Letters and the May 1 Physical Review B. Another team made its time crystal in a type of liquid containing star-shaped molecules, according to a study also published in the May 4 Physical Review Letters.

Both time crystals rely on a quantum property called spin, which makes some atomic nuclei seem to whirl like a top. In the time crystals, the direction of that spin flipped at regular intervals.

Repeated radio wave pulses were used to trigger the spins’ flip-flopping. But even when the spins weren’t flipped perfectly, both materials kept up a regular pattern of flipping, revealing that they had a preferred time structure.

monoammonium phosphate

Scientists created the only other two known time crystals for the first time in 2016. One was made with defects in diamond; the other using a chain of ions, or electrically charged atoms, of the chemical element ytterbium (SN: 11/12/16, p. 12).

Unlike the other known examples, the monoammonium phosphate time crystal was created in a solid material with an orderly physical structure — a traditional crystal. The other materials were disordered.

These curiosities are so new that scientists still aren’t sure what materials time crystals are found in, or if they have any practical uses. Now, the clock is ticking on the next time crystal discovery.


J. Rovny, R.L. Blum and S.E. Barrett. Observation of discrete-time-crystal signatures in an ordered dipolar many-body system. Physical Review Letters. Vol. 120, May 4, 2018, p. 180603. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.120.180603.

S. Pal et al. Temporal order in periodically driven spins in star-shaped clusters. Physical Review Letters. Vol. 120, May 4, 2018, p. 180602. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.120.180602.

J. Rovny, R.L. Blum and S.E. Barrett. 31P NMR study of discrete time-crystalline signatures in an ordered crystal of ammonium dihydrogen phosphate. Physical Review B. Vol. 97, May 1, 2018, p. 184301. doi:10.1103/PhysRevB.97.184301.

Further Reading

E. Conover. ‘Time crystal’ created in lab. Science News. Vol. 190, November 12, 2016, p. 12.

A. Witze. Crystals may be possible in time as well as spaceScience News. Vol. 181, March 24, 2012, p. 8.

T. Siegfried. To build a clock that ticks forever, you need a spacetime crystal blueprint. Science News Online, October 22, 2012.

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