Materials are either gas, liquid or solid, based on how their molecules respond to temperature and pressure. But what if the building blocks are self-spinning particles instead of ordinary molecules? Theoretical physicists found out what determines the phase of those artificial materials. Publication in PNAS.
When water reaches 100 °C, it turns into a gas phase. At sea level, that is. If you take away some air pressure, water will boil already at colder temperatures. It is clear that materials made up of ordinary molecules take on a phase depending on temperature and pressure. Leiden theoretical physicist Prof. Vincenzo Vitelli wondered what happens if materials have self-spinning dimers as building blocks instead.
To this end, first authors Benny van Zuiden and Jayson Paulose simulate self-spinning dimers on their computer and study how they organize themselves. When they apply a gradually increasing pressure on them, they see the system change from an ordered state to a very chaotic state.
In the figure below we see on the left a beautifully ordered state, with dimers neatly forming a triangular crystal lattice. Moreover, the relative orientation of nearby particles are locked as they spin.
At the far right, the concentration is so high that the system gets stuck in a glassy phase. Remarkably, there is a liquid phase in between. Usually a substance will become more solid as its density increases. Here the opposite happens.
So how can there be a liquid state? With low density, the dimers have plenty of room to move as they wish and stay in sync, like a group of stage dancers. When the stage is too small, dancers will bump in to each other and they chaotically move around, as particles in a liquid. If the stage however gets so tiny that dancers are unable to move, they get stuck in a disordered configuration reminiscent of a glass.