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Physicists just discovered a new state of matter called ‘quantum spin liquid’

Researchers with the University of Cambridge say they have the first real evidence of a new state of matter, some 40 years after it was first theorized.

Known as “quantum spin liquid,” the matter states causes normally unbreakable electrons to fracture into pieces, called “Majorana fermions.” These fermions are an important discovery: Physicists believe the material is crucial to further develop quantum computing. Computers employing Majorana fermions would be able to carry out calculations beyond the scope of modern computers quickly, they say.

Quantum spin liquid explains some of the odd behaviors inside magnetic materials. In these materials, the electrons should behave like small bar magnets, all aligning towards magnetic north when a material is cooled. But not all magnetic materials do this — if the material contains quantum spin liquid, the electrons don’t all line up and become entangled.

Related: Quantum computing may not be as far off as we think, thanks to IBM

“Until recently, we didn’t even know what the experimental fingerprints of a quantum spin liquid would look like,” researcher Dr. Dmitry Kovrizhin says. That created a challenge for the researchers, so they decided to employ neutron scattering techniques to look for evidence of fracturing.

What they found surprised them. The signatures matched nearly exactly with quantum spin liquid models theorized by physicist Phil Anderson in 1973. The results of their breakthrough were then published in the scientific journal Nature Materials on Monday.

Don’t get too excited just yet on its applications, though. Kovirzhin’s work is only the beginning, and as we’ve seen with quantum computing there is a lot of work to be done. For example, we’re only now starting to figure out quantum coding, and success in quantum computing itself is notably mixed. It’s still exciting regardless.

“It’s an important step for our understanding of quantum matter,” Kovrizhin says. “It’s fun to have another new quantum state that we’ve never seen before — it presents us with new possibilities to try new things.”