Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Superinsulators to become scientists' quark playgrounds


Scientists widely accept the existence of quarks, the fundamental particles that make up protons and neutrons. But information about them is still elusive, since  their interaction is so strong that their direct detection is impossible and exploring their properties indirectly often requires extremely expensive particle colliders and collaborations between thousands of researchers. So, quarks remain conceptually foreign and strange like the Cheshire cat in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," whose grin is detectable -- but not its body.

An international group of scientists that includes materials scientist Valerii Vinokur from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have developed a new method for exploring these fundamental particles that exploits an analogy between the behavior of quarks in high-energy physics and that of electrons in condensed-matter physics.

This image shows a 3D superinsulator, in which vortex condensate (green lines) squeezes the electric field lines connecting charge-anticharge pairs (red and blue balls) into the electric strings (orange strips). These strings tightly bind these charge-anticharge pairs, completely immobilizing them, so electric current cannot be produced.

Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

This discovery will help scientists formulate and conduct experiments that could provide conclusive evidence for quark confinement, asymptotic freedom, and other phenomena, such as whether superinsulators can exist in both two and three dimensions.

Vinokur, working with Maria Cristina Diamantini from the University of Perugia in Italy and Carlo Trugenberger from SwissScientific Technologies in Switzerland, devised a theory around a new state of matter called a superinsulator, in which electrons display some of the same properties as quarks.

The electrons, they determined, share two important properties that govern quark interactions: confinement and asymptotic freedom. Confinement is the mechanism that binds quarks together into composite particles. Unlike electrically charged particles, quarks cannot be separated from each other. As distance between them increases, their pull only becomes stronger.

"This is not our everyday experience," said Vinokur. "When you pull magnets apart, it becomes easier as they're separated, but the opposite is true of quarks. They resist fiercely."

Quark interactions are also characterized by asymptotic freedom, where quarks at close distance stop interacting altogether. Once they travel a certain distance away from each other, a nuclear force tugs them back in. 

In the late 1970s, Nobel laureate Gerard 't Hooft first explained these two newly theorized properties using an analogy. He imagined a state of matter that is the opposite of a superconductor in that it infinitely resists the flow of charge rather than infinitely conducting it.

In a "superinsulator," as 't Hooft called this state, pairs of electrons with different spins -- Cooper pairs -- would bind together in a way that is mathematically identical to quark confinement inside elementary particles.

"The distorted electric field in a superinsulator creates a string that binds the couples of Cooper pairs, and the more you stretch them, the more the couple resists to separation," said Vinokur. "This is the mechanism that binds quarks together into protons and neutrons."

In 1996, unaware of 't Hooft's analogy, Diamantini and Trugenberger -- along with colleague Pascuale Sodano -- predicted the existence of superinsulators. However, superinsulators remained theoretical until 2008, when an international collaboration led by Argonne investigators rediscovered them in films of titanium nitride.

Using their experimental results, they constructed a theory describing superinsulator behavior that eventually led to their recent discovery, which established a Cooper pair analog to both confinement and the asymptotic freedom of quarks, the way 't Hooft imagined, noted Vinokur.

The theory of superinsulators fleshes out a mental model that high-energy physicists can use to think about quarks, and it offers a powerful laboratory for exploring confinement physics using easily accessible materials.

"Our work suggests that systems smaller than the typical length of the strings that bind the Cooper pairs behave in an interesting way," said Vinokur. "They move almost freely at this scale because there is not enough room for high-strength forces to develop. This movement is analogous to the free motion of quarks at a small enough scale."

Vinokur and co-researchers Diamantini, Trugenberger, and Luca Gammaitoni at the University of Perugia are seeking ways to conclusively differentiate between 2D and 3D superinsulators. So far, they have found one -- and it has broad significance, challenging conventional notions about how glass forms.

To discover how to synthesize a 2D or 3D superinsulator, researchers need "a full understanding of what makes one material three-dimensional and another two-dimensional," Vinokur said.

Their new work shows that 3D superinsulators display a critical behavior known as Vogel-Fulcher-Tammann (VFT) when transitioning to a superinsulating state. Superinsulators in 2D, however, display a different behavior: the Berezinskii-Kosterlitz-Thouless transition.

The discovery that VFT is the mechanism behind 3D superinsulators revealed something surprising: VFT transitions, first described nearly a century ago, are responsible for the formation of glass from a liquid. Glass is not crystalline, like ice -- it emerges from an amorphous, random arrangement of atoms that rapidly freeze into a solid.

The cause of VFT has remained a mystery since its discovery, but scientists long believed it began with some kind of external disorder. The 3D superinsulators described in Vinokur's paper challenge this conventional notion and, instead, suggest disorder can evolve from an internal defect in the system. The idea that glasses can be topological -- they can alter their intrinsic properties while remaining materially the same -- is a new discovery.

"This fundamental breakthrough constitutes a significant step in understanding the origin of irreversibility in nature," Vinokur said. The next step will be to observe this theoretical behavior in 3D superinsulators.

The study brought together researchers from markedly different disciplines. Vinokur is a condensed matter physicist, while Gammaitoni focuses on quantum thermodynamics. Diamantini and Trugenberger are in quantum field theory.

"It was most remarkable that we came from very disparate fields of physics," Vinokur said. "Combining our complementary knowledge enabled us to achieve these breakthroughs."

Results from the Cooper pairs study appear in the paper "Confinement and asymptotic freedom with Cooper pairs," published on Nov. 7, 2018 in Communications Physics. Work on 3D superinsulator mechanisms is outlined in the paper "Vogel-Fulcher-Tamman criticality of 3D superinsulators," published in Scientific Reports on October 24, 2018.


The work at Argonne was funded by the DOE Office of Science.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.

Media Contact

Chris Kramer


Chris Kramer | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Materials Sciences:

nachricht Large-scale window material developed for PM2.5 capture and light tuning
18.02.2019 | University of Science and Technology of China

nachricht Engineered metasurfaces reflect waves in unusual directions
18.02.2019 | Aalto University

All articles from Materials Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Regensburg physicists watch electron transfer in a single molecule

For the first time, an international team of scientists based in Regensburg, Germany, has recorded the orbitals of single molecules in different charge states in a novel type of microscopy. The research findings are published under the title “Mapping orbital changes upon electron transfer with tunneling microscopy on insulators” in the prestigious journal “Nature”.

The building blocks of matter surrounding us are atoms and molecules. The properties of that matter, however, are often not set by these building blocks...

Im Focus: University of Konstanz gains new insights into the recent development of the human immune system

Scientists at the University of Konstanz identify fierce competition between the human immune system and bacterial pathogens

Cell biologists from the University of Konstanz shed light on a recent evolutionary process in the human immune system and publish their findings in the...

Im Focus: Transformation through Light

Laser physicists have taken snapshots of carbon molecules C₆₀ showing how they transform in intense infrared light

When carbon molecules C₆₀ are exposed to an intense infrared light, they change their ball-like structure to a more elongated version. This has now been...

Im Focus: Famous “sandpile model” shown to move like a traveling sand dune

Researchers at IST Austria find new property of important physical model. Results published in PNAS

The so-called Abelian sandpile model has been studied by scientists for more than 30 years to better understand a physical phenomenon called self-organized...

Im Focus: Cryo-force spectroscopy reveals the mechanical properties of DNA components

Physicists from the University of Basel have developed a new method to examine the elasticity and binding properties of DNA molecules on a surface at extremely low temperatures. With a combination of cryo-force spectroscopy and computer simulations, they were able to show that DNA molecules behave like a chain of small coil springs. The researchers reported their findings in Nature Communications.

DNA is not only a popular research topic because it contains the blueprint for life – it can also be used to produce tiny components for technical applications.

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Global Legal Hackathon at HAW Hamburg

11.02.2019 | Event News

The world of quantum chemistry meets in Heidelberg

30.01.2019 | Event News

Our digital society in 2040

16.01.2019 | Event News

Latest News

The Internet of Things: TU Graz researchers increase the dependability of smart systems

18.02.2019 | Interdisciplinary Research

Laser Processes for Multi-Functional Composites

18.02.2019 | Process Engineering

Scientists Create New Map of Brain’s Immune System

18.02.2019 | Studies and Analyses

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>