Jan 22, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

On the Verge of Antimatter—Superconducting Iron Reveals ‘Majorana Particles’

Oct 06, 2014 12:35 AM EDT

For more than 80 years, physicists have sought out the truth behind one of the most contended theoretical phenomena, known simply as "Majorana particles". And now with some superconducting iron particles, researchers from Princeton University believe that they have found the particles that at one are both matter and the elusive antimatter.

The research leading to the phenomena published in this week's issue of the journal Science was inspired by a prediction nearly a century in the making. In 1937 Italian physicist Ettore Majorana correctly predicted that not only did particles of matter have counterpart antimatter particles, but that some of these particles of matter could also be their very own counterparts. Majorana himself could only speculate on the theorized phenomena, however, now scientists can show the exact trace these particles leave behind.

With a long chain of iron atoms, placed on top of a lead superconductor, researchers were able to superconduct the iron by simultaneously coordinating the spins of their electrons creating a uniquely abnormal case of magnetism. Within the pairs of adjacent iron atoms, the researchers were able to find the existence of electrons and antielectrons, however it was the neighborless atoms at the ends of the arrangement that revealed something much more significant. Without a neighbor to pair with at the ends of the arrangement, the lone electrons on the two ends of the strand took on the properties of both electrons and antielectrons, becoming "Majorana particles".

Rather than simply being found as Majorana suspected could be done in nature, the particles found by the Princeton physicists are a unique form of an "emergent particle", whose properties are induced by the collective conditions within the superconductor.

And this discovery could have far greater applications in the real world as to simply adding another chapter to physics textbooks. The unique conditions that create these Majorana particle-capped strands of superconductors could be invaluable assets in the construction of quantum computers, which are able to make calculations many times faster than conventional computers by harnessing the laws of quantum mechanics. The unique Majorana ends of these chains would be able to encode information that would virtually be indestructible under normal circumstances, and that's something physicists and engineers are eager to harness.

Though the research reveals quite unique conditions leading to the emergence of these long theorized particles, some researchers say that as the particles are new we can't simply count out other answers that might lead physics in a different direction. "The study offers compelling evidence for Majorana particles" physicist Jason Alicea, from the California Institute of Technology, says. "But we should keep in mind possible alternative explanations - even if there are other immediately obvious candidates."

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