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Real-world materials are usually messier than the idealized scenarios found in textbooks. Imperfections can add complications and even limit a material's usefulness. To get around this, scientists routinely strive to remove defects and dirt entirely, pushing materials closer to perfection. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have turned this problem around and shown that for some materials defects could act as a probe for interesting physics, rather than a nuisance.

The team, led by professors Gaurav Bahl and Taylor Hughes, studied artificial materials, or metamaterials, which they engineered to include defects. They used these customizable circuits as a proxy for studying exotic topological crystals, which are often imperfect, difficult to synthesize, and notoriously tricky to probe directly. In a new study, published in the January 20th issue of Nature, the researchers showed that defects and structural deformations can provide insights into a real material's hidden topological features.

"Most studies in this field have focused on materials with perfect internal structure. Our team wanted to see what happens when we account for imperfections. We were surprised to discover that we could actually use defects to our advantage," said Bahl, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering. With that unexpected assist, the team has created a practical and systematic approach for exploring the of unconventional materials.

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