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15 February 2019

Flip-flopping Phases

Electrons in this cool high-field experiment flip-flopped between liquid and solid.


Physicists love when matter changes phases. It's understandable: Even the most mundane of phase changes — water turning solid at 0 degrees Celsius and gaseous at 100 degrees Celsius — are fascinating when you think about them.

Nature has loads of other phase changing tricks up its sleeve. They can be driven by temperature, as is the case with H20, or other parameters, such as high magnetic fields.

In an experiment published last year involving scientists from the RIKEN Center for Emergent Matter Science, the University of Tokyo in Japan and the High Field Magnet Laboratory (HFML) in the Netherlands, scientists created a material featuring a special two-dimensional gas layer, then subjected it to both high fields and extremely low temperatures. They wanted to see what combinations of field and temperature would prompt that gas to change to a liquid and then a solid. Anytime physicists can provoke a phase transition, they learn a little more about how the world works while gaining knowledge that could one day translate into an advance in electronics, energy or other applications.

What they discovered surprised them. Board this "Slow Train to Science" below and check out the stops along the way to learn more. (You can also view this infographic in PDF format if you prefer — or flip-flop between the two!)

These Particles Just Won't Commit

Story Science Advisor: Uli Zeitler

Illustrations by Caroline McNiel

Last modified on 15 February 2019