Physicists at the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Caltech have discovered the first three-dimensional quantum liquid crystals. This is a new state of matter that may have applications in ultrafast quantum computers of the future. There are numerous classes of such quantum liquid crystals that can, in principle, exist. Therefore, our finding is likely the tip of an iceberg, researchers said in the press release.
These images show light patterns generated by a rhenium-based crystal using a laser method called optical second-harmonic rotational anisotropy. At left, the pattern comes from the atomic lattice of the crystal. At right, the crystal has become a 3-D quantum liquid crystal, showing a drastic departure from the pattern due to the atomic lattice alone. Credit: Hsieh Lab/Caltech

Most of us were taught that there are generally three phases of matter: solids, liquids, and gasses. But there are also intermediate phases called liquid crystals. At certain temperatures, some materials become liquid crystalline. This means they tend to flow like a liquid but have some of the optical properties of a solid due to the ordered arrangement of their molecules.

Liquid crystals can be found both in the natural world and in technological applications. First discovered in 1888 by the Austrian chemist Friedrich Reinitzer, we now know of several liquid crystalline phases, each with unique characteristics and applications. The most known phases are:

  • Lyotropic liquid crystalline phases are found in living systems such as proteins and cell membranes.
  • Thermotropic phases occur in a certain temperature range. The three most common types are Cholesteric, Smectic and Nematic.
  • Cholesteric liquid crystals reflect different wavelengths of light based on their pitch and are used for mood rings, thermometers and some displays.
  • Smectic liquid crystal molecules form layers, much like soap. There are many different smectic phases, all characterized by different types and degrees of positional and orientational order.
  • Nematic liquid crystals can be aligned by an electric field, which makes them very useful in modern liquid crystal displays on cell phones, calculators, portable computers and flat screen televisions.
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Basically, liquid crystals are almost everywhere and their molecules behave same as molecules in the 2D quantum liquid crystals, but their electrons prefer to orient themselves along certain axes. Now researchers have discovered the first 3D quantum liquid crystal. Compared to a 2D quantum liquid crystal, the 3-D version is more bizarre.

Their electrons exhibit different magnetic properties which mean that electrifying these materials changes them into magnets, or changes the strength or orientation of their magnetism.

The researchers say that 3-D quantum liquid crystals could play a role in a field called spintronics, in which the direction that electrons spin may be exploited to create more efficient computer chips.