From water boiling into steam to ice cubes melting in a glass, we've all seen the phenomenon known as a phase transition in our everyday lives. But there's another type of phase transition that's much harder to see, but just as stark: quantum phase transitions.
When cooled to near absolute zero, certain materials can undergo these quantum phase transitions, which can make a physicist's jaw drop. The material can flip from being magnetic to non-magnetic, or it can suddenly acquire the superpower to conduct electricity with zero energy lost as heat.
The mathematics behind these transitions is tough to handle even for supercomputers—but a new Physical Review A study from the University of Chicago suggests a new way to work with these complicated calculations, which could eventually yield technological breakthroughs. The shortcut pulls only the most important information into the equation, and creates a "map" of all possible phase transitions in the system being simulated.
"This is a potentially powerful way of looking at quantum phase transitions that can be used with either traditional or quantum computers," said David Mazziotti, a theoretical chemist with the Department of Chemistry and the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study.
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