It sounds like a riddle: What do you get if you take two small diamonds, put a small magnetic crystal between them and squeeze them together very slowly?

The answer is a magnetic liquid, which seems counterintuitive. Liquids become solids under pressure, but not generally the other way around. But this unusual pivotal discovery, unveiled by a team of researchers working at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory, may provide scientists with new insight into high-temperature superconductivity and quantum computing.

Though scientists and engineers have been making use of superconducting materials for decades, the exact process by which high-temperature superconductors conduct electricity without resistance remains a quantum mechanical mystery. The telltale signs of a superconductor are a loss of resistance and a loss of magnetism. High-temperature superconductors can operate at temperatures above those of liquid nitrogen (−320 degrees Fahrenheit), making them attractive for lossless transmission lines in power grids and other applications in the energy sector.

But no one really knows how high-temperature superconductors achieve this state. This knowledge is needed to increase these materials’ operating temperature towards ambient temperature, something that would be required for full-scale implementation of superconductors in energy-conserving power grids.

One idea put forth in 1987 by the late theorist Phil Anderson of Princeton University involves putting materials into a quantum spin liquid state, which Anderson proposed could lead to high-temperature superconductivity. The key is the spins of the electrons in each of the material’s atoms, which under certain conditions can be nudged into a state where they become ​frustrated” and unable to arrange themselves into an ordered pattern.

To relieve this frustration, electron spin directions fluctuate in time, only aligning with neighboring spins for short periods of time, like a liquid. It is these fluctuations that may aid in the electron pair formation needed for high-temperature superconductivity.

Pressure provides a way to ​tune” the separation between electron spins and drive a magnet into a frustrated state where magnetism goes away at a certain pressure and a spin liquid emerges, according to Daniel Haskel, the physicist and group leader in Argonne’s X-ray Science Division (XSD) who led a research team through a series of experiments at the APS to do just that. The team included Argonne assistant physicist Gilberto Fabbris and physicists Jong-Woo Kim and Jung Ho Kim, all of XSD.

Read more at Argonne National Laboratory.

Image: Artist’s rendering of electron spins frustrated as the sample of magnetic material is pressurized into a spin liquid state. Image by Daniel Haskel.