Time crystals aren’t something out of Tony Stark’s glossary of inventions. Tony Stark is, of course, the ‘genius billionaire playboy philanthropist’, also known as ‘Iron Man’. You get the picture — Tony Stark is fictional. Time crystals, however, have transitioned from the world of fantasy into that of reality. And don’t let the name mislead you. Time crystals don’t have anything to do with time (much less time travel).
Time crystals are basically structures that repeat both in space and in time. They are among the first examples of a phase of matter known as the non-equilibrium phase — they move without requiring energy, and they never reach a steady state because of their constant motion.
The existence of this bizarre type of matter was first proposed in 2012 by physicist and Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek. Four years later, the hypothetical structure came into actual being as two separate research teams — one from the University of Maryland and the other from Harvard University — were able to create their own versions. The University of Maryland team used a chain of ytterbium ions while the Harvard team used a synthetic diamond.
Scientists are still speculating on what time crystals can be used for. Right now, a research team from Harvard led by Mikhail Lukin and Eugene Demler (both physics professors), is working on a quantum system that makes use of time crystals. Going beyond mere understanding of how non-equilibrium systems (such as time crystals) work, they are carefully considering the practical applications for these systems. And while they believe it’s still a bit far-off, one possible application they have thought of is quantum computing.
As Lupin said in an interview, “This is an area that is of interest for many quantum technologies, because a quantum computer is basically a quantum system that’s far away from equilibrium. It’s very much at the frontier of research…and we are really just scratching the surface.”
Quantum computers are being hailed as the next generation of computers that will be more powerful and far more efficient than any existing conventional computer. And it’s because of how they will process data. Unlike today’s computers which rely on bits that can represent either 0 or 1, quantum computers will rely on qubits (short for quantum bits) that can represent 0, or 1, or 0 and 1 simultaneously through the extraordinary phenomenon called superpositioning (being in two states at once).
All around the world, scientists have been attempting to build a quantum computer. And so far, the race is still on. The motivation behind it isn’t hard to understand – we need to have quantum computers now so that we can have have a better shot at addressing the worst problems we are facing, including global warming, curing disease, antibiotic resistance and lack of safe drinking water.
Time crystals might not have anything to do with time. But maybe time is exactly what’s needed so the weird mechanisms that make them behave like they do can eventually be harnessed and the first fully functioning quantum computer can finally be built.