What Is a Time Crystal? Child's Toy May Hold Clues to Existence of Mysterious Rock, Research Suggests

time crystal
Yale physicists looked for a signature of a discrete time crystal in a crystal of monoammonium phosphate. Michael Marsland/Yale University

Time crystals are a true anomaly as they violate the law of conservation, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The crystals are incredibly rare, but now scientists at Yale University have identified signs of the crystal's existence inside of grown crystals, similar to those found in children's science projects.

For years, time crystals remained only a theory on paper until scientists were able to create one in a lab in 2016. Although they look like ordinary crystals at first glance, on a molecular level, when exposed to an electromagnetic pulse, their atoms oscillate and move in new directions, Science Alert reported. Time crystals have not been found naturally without having to be created by scientists just yet, but two new studies published online in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review B suggest this may soon change.

By definition, traditional crystals are an arrangement of atoms or molecules in a regular repeated pattern in space, Space.com reported. Time crystals are an arrangement of atoms or molecules that form a regular, repeated pattern in time, that oscillate or move back and forth at a set pace. Time crystal atoms derive their movement not from stored energy but from a break in the symmetry of time. For this reason they break the law of conservation of energy. In addition, prior to their discovery, all symmetry found in nature had been broken somehow except for symmetry of conservation. Now, time crystals have reportedly broken this symmetry.

The researchers found hints of time crystals inside of grown monoammonium phosphate (MAP) crystals. They are commonly made in science class and commercial children's at-home crystal growing kits. In other words, they not very special. However, when the researchers used a tool called nuclear magnetic resonance to further analyze these ordinary crystals, they found something truly extraordinary. They found a signature for a discrete time crystal—a strong clue to the time crystal's existence.

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"Our crystal measurements looked quite striking right off the bat," said Yale physics professor Sean Barrett, principal investigator for the two new studies, PhysOrg reported. "Our work suggests that the signature of a DTC could be found, in principle, by looking in a children's crystal growing kit."

In addition to a signature for a discrete time crystal, the team also used a crystal echo to reveal the hidden coherence, or quantum order, within the system. This is another strong clue to the existence of a time crystal.

Time crystals aren't just cool in concept, they could have real life applications. For example, according to Phys.org, the crystals may lead to improvements in atomic clocks, an extremely accurate type of clock that is regulated by atom vibrations, gyroscopes, a device that helps determine orientation by using gravity, and magnetometers, which are used to measure magnetic forces, PhysOrg reported.

In reality though, researchers aren't quite sure what the future holds for time crystals. "The whole concept of a 'time crystal' is a recent development, and everybody is struggling to answer very basic questions about them," Barrett told Newsweek. "It is hard to predict possible real life applications at this point."

For now the scientists will need to conduct further research to further unravel the mystery of these crystals before we can really use them to help ourselves.