Discovery Could Lead to an Energy Revolution

Scientists have created a new form of matter called “fermionic condensate” that might lead to a new generation of superconductors and in turn, a revolution in electricity generation.

Washington, D.C. – February 12, 2004 [] Fermionic condensate is the sixth known form of matter, after gases, solids, liquids, plasma, and a Bose-Einstein condensate, which was created by scientists in 1995. According to scientific team leader Deborah Jin, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s joint lab with the University of Colorado, she and her colleagues created a cloud of super-cooled potassium atoms that has brought physicists one step closer to an everyday, usable superconductor, a material that conducts electricity without losing any of its energy. Jin said that the new exotic form of matter is not actually a superconductor. But as it is related to a Bose-Einstein condensate, it is really something in between the two that may help scientists link two interesting behaviors, which according to Jin, could ultimately lead to countless applications. Jin explained that a true superconductor could transmit electricity with no losses, unlike present technology, which results in an accumulated loss of at least 10 percent of all electricity produced in the United States. Envisioning other applications, Jin cited how superconductors could allow for the invention of magnetically levitated trains. Free of friction they could glide along at high speeds using a fraction of the energy trains now use. During her research, Jin, who is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, was building on the discovery of the Bose-Einstein condensate by her colleagues Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery. Bose-Einstein condensates are collections of thousands of ultracold particles that occupy a single quantum state — and all essentially behave like a single, huge superatom. Jin explained that Bose-Einstein condensates are made with bosons, which like to act in unison, while Fermionic condensate, her teams new form of matter, uses fermions, which are the everyday building blocks of matter that include protons, electrons and neutrons. To create fermionic condensate, Jin’s team cooled potassium gas to a billionth of a degree C above absolute zero or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the point at which matter stops moving. The scientists confined the gas in a vacuum chamber and used magnetic fields and laser light to manipulate the potassium atoms into pairing up, which is something very similar to what happens to electrons in a superconductor. Jin predicted that fermionic condensate is more likely to provide applications in the practical world than a Bose-Einstein condensate, because fermions are what make up solid matter. She explained that Bosons, in contrast, are seen in photons, and subatomic particles called W and Z particles, which provides little opportunity for everyday application. But the way the super-cooled potassium atoms acted at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s joint lab with the University of Colorado has suggested there should be a way to translate the behavior into a room-temperature solid. “The strength of pairing in our fermionic condensate, adjusted for mass and density would correspond to a room temperature superconductor,” said Jin. “This makes me optimistic that the fundamental physics we learn through fermionic condensates will eventually help others design more practical superconducting materials.”
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