Edinburgh University Shows Elements can be Solid and Liquid Simultaneously
Using powerful computer simulations, Edinburgh University researchers simulated how 20,000 potassium atoms behaved under extreme conditions.
A new state of physical matter in which atoms can simultaneously exist as solid and liquid has been discovered by scientists.
Atoms in physical material are commonly understood to exist in one of three states – solid, liquid or gas. However, researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that, when subjected to extreme conditions, some elements can take on both solid and liquid properties at the same time.
Through applying high temperatures and pressure to potassium, the research team was able to create conditions in which most of the element’s atoms formed a solid ‘lattice structure’.
The structure, however, also contained a second set of potassium atoms that are fluid in their arrangement. When conditions are ideal, more than half a dozen elements, including sodium and bismuth, are believed to be capable of existing in the newly discovered state, known as the ‘chain-melted state’.
Researchers said that until now, it has been unclear whether the unusual structures represented a distinct state of matter, or simply existed as transition stages between two particular states.
Using powerful computer simulations as part of the study, researchers simulated how 20,000 potassium atoms behaved under extreme conditions. The behaviour of atoms under extreme heat or pressure revealed that the structures formed the new, stable state of matter.
Chemical interactions between atoms in one particular lattice are strong, they added, meaning that they stay in a solid form when the structure is heated. Meanwhile, other atoms melt into a liquid state.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was supported by both the European Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Work was carried out between researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Xi’an Jianton University.
Dr Andreas Hermann, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, commented: “Potassium is one of the simplest metals we know, yet if you squeeze it, it forms very complicated structures.
“We have shown that this unusual but stable state is part solid and part liquid. Recreating this unusual state in other materials could have all kinds of applications.”