This is how matter can be both liquid and solid at the same time

It’s not every day we learn about a new state of physical matter, but today is such a day. Rather than your typical solid, gas, or liquid, scientists have confirmed a new “chain-melted state” that is simultaneously solid and liquid at the same time. The state is thermodynamically stable, and a new discovery. It’s also quite weird.

Now consider that this exotic and improbable-sounding matter has been inside our bodies all along. It’s a newly discovered state of potassium atoms, an alkali metal first isolated from the ashes of plants. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps your nerves to function and allows your muscles to contract. It helps your heart to beat and facilitates moving nutrients in and out of cells.

“Potassium is one of the simplest metals we know, yet if you squeeze it, it forms very complicated structures,” explained the study coauthor.

The atoms of potassium can be changed under high pressure and temperature to this new state. This state could occur within the Earth’s mantle right now but is improbable since potassium is not usually found in a pure form. In fact, most of the matter (as we know it) in the universe exists under high temperature and pressure, inside stars and planets. This means that chain-melted dual-state matter could exists just about everywhere.

The study was presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by coauthor, Andreas Hermann of the University of Edinburgh.

“It’s kind of strange,” says Hermann. “It would be like holding a sponge filled with water that starts dripping out, except the sponge is also made of water,” he says.

Imagine holding a sponge that is both a liquid and solid at once, and you can see why it’s slightly mind-bending. This new state of matter could have a wide range of applications. According to Metro, the researchers believe about six other elements, including sodium and bismuth, are capable of existing in this new state.

According to National Geographic, the discovery was not made by human beings, but by an artificial intelligence machine.

“Hermann and his colleagues turned to simulations to find out, using what’s known as a neural network—an artificial intelligence machine that learns how to predict behavior based on prior examples. After being trained on small groups of potassium atoms, the neural network learned quantum mechanics well enough to simulate collections containing tens of thousands of atoms.”

Scientists have known for many years that metals similar to potassium change their molecular structure in surprising ways when compressed. Another similar common metal, sodium changes from an orderly structure to a complex crystal formation that becomes transparent.

See an experiment that changed sodium  below (do not try at home):

Like sodium, potassium changes under high temperature and pressure in an elaborate way. Researchers argue about what actually happens as the atoms form latticed X shapes with separate chains that disappear as the temperature climbs. The chains convert to liquid while the X shaped crystals of potassium remain in solid form.

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Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube




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