More stories

  • in

    A new gravity sensor used atoms’ weird quantum behavior to peer underground

    The best way to find buried treasure may be with a quantum gravity sensor.

    In these devices, free-falling atoms reveal subtle variations in Earth’s gravitational pull at different places. Those variations reflect differences in the density of material beneath the sensor — effectively letting the instrument peer underground. In a new experiment, one of these machines teased out the tiny gravitational signature of an underground tunnel, researchers report in the Feb. 24 Nature.

    “Instruments like this would find many, many applications,” says Nicola Poli, an experimental physicist at the University of Florence, who coauthored a commentary on the study in the same issue of Nature.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Poli imagines using quantum gravity sensors to monitor groundwater or magma beneath volcanoes, or to help archaeologists uncover hidden tombs or other artifacts without having to dig them up (SN: 11/2/17). These devices could also help farmers check soil quality or help engineers inspect potential construction sites for unstable ground.

    “There are many tools to measure gravity,” says Xuejian Wu, an atomic physicist at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., who wasn’t involved in the study. Some devices measure how far gravity pulls down a mass hanging from a spring. Other tools use lasers to clock how fast an object tumbles down a vacuum chamber. But free-falling atoms, like those in quantum gravity sensors, are the most pristine, reliable test masses out there, Wu says. As a result, quantum sensors promise to be more accurate and stable in the long run than other gravity probes.

    Inside a quantum gravity sensor, a cloud of supercooled atoms is dropped down a chute. A pulse of light then splits each of the falling atoms into a superposition state — a quantum limbo where each atom exists in two places at once (SN: 11/7/19). Due to their slightly different positions in Earth’s gravitational field, the two versions of each atom feel a different downward tug as they fall. Another light pulse then recombines the split atoms.

    Thanks to the atoms’ wave-particle duality — a strange rule of quantum physics that says atoms can act like waves — the reunited atoms interfere with each other (SN: 1/13/22). That is, as the atom waves overlap, their crests and troughs can reinforce or cancel each other out, creating an interference pattern. That pattern reflects the slightly different downward pulls that the split versions of each atom felt as they fell — revealing the gravity field at the atom cloud’s location.

    Extremely precise measurements made by such atom-based devices have helped test Einstein’s theory of gravity (SN: 10/28/20) and measure fundamental constants, such as Newton’s gravitational constant (SN: 4/12/18). But atom-based gravity sensors are highly sensitive to vibrations from seismic activity, traffic and other sources.

    “Even very, very small vibrations create enough noise that you have to measure for a long time” at any location to weed out background tremors, says Michael Holynski, a physicist at the University of Birmingham in England. That has made quantum gravity sensing impractical for many uses outside the lab.  

    Holynski’s team solved that problem by building a gravity sensor with not one but two falling clouds of rubidium atoms. With one cloud suspended a meter above the other, the instrument could gauge the strength of gravity at two different heights in a single location. Comparing those measurements allowed the researchers to cancel out the effects of background noise.

    Holynski and colleagues tested whether their sensor — a 2-meter-tall chute on wheels tethered to a rolling cart of equipment — could detect an underground passageway on the University of Birmingham campus. The 2-by-2-meter concrete tunnel lay beneath a road between two multistory buildings. The quantum sensor measured the local gravitational field every 0.5 meters along an 8.5-meter line that crossed over the tunnel. Those readouts matched the predictions of a computer simulation, which had estimated the gravitational signal of the tunnel based on its structure and other factors that could influence the local gravitational field, such as nearby buildings.

    Based on the machine’s sensitivity in this experiment, it could probably provide a reliable gravity measurement at each location in less than two minutes, the researchers estimate. That’s about one-tenth the time needed for other types of gravity sensors.

    The team has since built a downsized version of the gravity sensor used in the tunnel-detecting experiment. The new machine weighs about 15 kilograms, compared with the 300-kilogram beast used for the tunnel test. Other upgrades could also boost the gravity sensor’s speed.

    In the future, engineer Nicole Metje envisions building a quantum gravity sensor that could be pushed from place to place like a lawn mower. But portability isn’t the only challenge for making these tools more user-friendly, says Metje, a coauthor on the study who is also at the University of Birmingham. “At the moment, we still need someone with a physics degree to operate the sensor.”

    So hopeful beachcombers may be waiting a long time to trade in their metal detectors for quantum gravity sensors. More

  • in

    The quantum ‘boomerang’ effect has been seen for the first time

    Some quantum particles gotta get right back to where they started from.

    Physicists have confirmed a theoretically predicted phenomenon called the quantum boomerang effect. An experiment reveals that, after being given a nudge, particles in certain materials return to their starting points, on average, researchers report in a paper accepted in Physical Review X.

    Particles can boomerang if they’re in a material that has lots of disorder. Instead of a pristine material made up of orderly arranged atoms, the material must have many defects, such as atoms that are missing or misaligned, or other types of atoms sprinkled throughout.

    In 1958, physicist Philip Anderson realized that with enough disorder, electrons in a material become localized: They get stuck in place, unable to travel very far from where they started. The pinned-down electrons prevent the material from conducting electricity, thereby turning what might otherwise be a metal into an insulator. That localization is also necessary for the boomerang effect.

    To picture the boomerang in action, physicist David Weld of the University of California, Santa Barbara imagines shrinking himself down and slipping inside a disordered material. If he tries to fling away an electron, he says, “it will not only turn around and come straight back to me, it’ll come right back to me and stop.” (Actually, he says, in this sense the electron is “more like a dog than a boomerang.” The boomerang will keep going past you if you don’t catch it, but a well-trained dog will sit by your side.)

    Weld and colleagues demonstrated this effect using ultracold lithium atoms as stand-ins for the electrons. Instead of looking for atoms returning to their original position, the team studied the analogous situation for momentum, because that was relatively straightforward to create in the lab. The atoms were initially stationary, but after being given kicks from lasers to give them momenta, the atoms returned, on average, to their original standstill states, making a momentum boomerang.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    The team also determined what’s needed to break the boomerang. To work, the boomerang effect requires time-reversal symmetry, meaning that the particles should behave the same when time runs forward as they would on rewind. By changing the timing of the first kick from the lasers so that the kicking pattern was off-kilter, the researchers broke time-reversal symmetry, and the boomerang effect disappeared, as predicted.

    “I was so happy,” says Patrizia Vignolo, a coauthor of the study. “It was perfect agreement” with their theoretical calculations, says Vignolo, a theoretical physicist at Université Côte d’Azur based in Valbonne, France.

    Even though Anderson made his discovery about localized particles more than 60 years ago, the quantum boomerang effect is a recent newcomer to physics. “Nobody thought about it, apparently, probably because it’s very counterintuitive,” says physicist Dominique Delande of CNRS and Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris, who predicted the effect with colleagues in 2019.

    The weird effect is the result of quantum physics. Quantum particles act like waves, with ripples that can add and subtract in complicated ways (SN: 5/3/19). Those waves combine to enhance the trajectory that returns a particle to its origin and cancel out paths that go off in other directions. “This is a pure quantum effect,” Delande says, “so it has no equivalent in classical physics.” More

  • in

    Quantum particles can feel the influence of gravitational fields they never touch

    If you’re superstitious, a black cat in your path is bad luck, even if you keep your distance. Likewise, in quantum physics, particles can feel the influence of magnetic fields that they never come into direct contact with. Now scientists have shown that this eerie quantum effect holds not just for magnetic fields, but for gravity too — and it’s no superstition.

    Usually, to feel the influence of a magnetic field, a particle would have to pass through it. But in 1959, physicists Yakir Aharonov and David Bohm predicted that, in a specific scenario, the conventional wisdom would fail. A magnetic field contained within a cylindrical region can affect particles — electrons, in their example — that never enter the cylinder. In this scenario, the electrons don’t have well-defined locations, but are in “superpositions,” quantum states described by the odds of a particle materializing in two different places. Each fractured particle simultaneously takes two different paths around the magnetic cylinder. Despite never touching the electrons, and hence exerting no force on them, the magnetic field shifts the pattern of where particles are found at the end of this journey, as various experiments have confirmed (SN: 3/1/86).

    In the new experiment, the same uncanny physics is at play for gravitational fields, physicists report in the Jan. 14 Science. “Every time I look at this experiment, I’m like, ‘It’s amazing that nature is that way,’” says physicist Mark Kasevich of Stanford University.

    Kasevich and colleagues launched rubidium atoms inside a 10-meter-tall vacuum chamber, hit them with lasers to put them in quantum superpositions tracing two different paths, and watched how the atoms fell. Notably, the particles weren’t in a gravitational field–free zone. Instead, the experiment was designed so that the researchers could filter out the effects of gravitational forces, laying bare the eerie Aharonov-Bohm influence.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    The study not only reveals a famed physics effect in a new context, but also showcases the potential to study subtle effects in gravitational systems. For example, researchers aim to use this type of technique to better measure Newton’s gravitational constant, G, which reveals the strength of gravity, and is currently known less precisely than other fundamental constants of nature (SN: 8/29/18).

    A phenomenon called interference is key to this experiment. In quantum physics, atoms and other particles behave like waves that can add and subtract, just as two swells merging in the ocean make a larger wave. At the end of the atoms’ flight, the scientists recombined the atoms’ two paths so their waves would interfere, then measured where the atoms arrived. The arrival locations are highly sensitive to tweaks that alter where the peaks and troughs of the waves land, known as phase shifts.

    At the top of the vacuum chamber, the researchers placed a hunk of tungsten with a mass of 1.25 kilograms. To isolate the Aharonov-Bohm effect, the scientists performed the same experiment with and without this mass, and for two different sets of launched atoms, one which flew close to the mass, and the other lower. Each of those two sets of atoms were split into superpositions, with one path traveling closer to the mass than the other, separated by about 25 centimeters. Other sets of atoms, with superpositions split across smaller distances, rounded out the crew. Comparing how the various sets of atoms interfered, both with and without the tungsten mass, teased out a phase shift that was not due to the gravitational force. Instead, that tweak was from time dilation, a feature of Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, which causes time to pass more slowly close to a massive object.

    The two theories that underlie this experiment, general relativity and quantum mechanics, don’t work well together. Scientists don’t know how to combine them to describe reality. So, for physicists, says Guglielmo Tino of the University of Florence, who was not involved with the new study, “probing gravity with a quantum sensor, I think it’s really one of … the most important challenges at the moment.” More

  • in

    Quantum physics requires imaginary numbers to explain reality

    Imaginary numbers might seem like unicorns and goblins — interesting but irrelevant to reality. 

    But for describing matter at its roots, imaginary numbers turn out to be essential. They seem to be woven into the fabric of quantum mechanics, the math describing the realm of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles. A theory obeying the rules of quantum physics needs imaginary numbers to describe the real world, two new experiments suggest.

    Imaginary numbers result from taking the square root of a negative number. They often pop up in equations as a mathematical tool to make calculations easier. But everything we can actually measure about the world is described by real numbers, the normal, nonimaginary figures we’re used to (SN: 5/8/18). That’s true in quantum physics too. Although imaginary numbers appear in the inner workings of the theory, all possible measurements generate real numbers.

    Quantum theory’s prominent use of complex numbers — sums of imaginary and real numbers — was disconcerting to its founders, including physicist Erwin Schrödinger. “From the early days of quantum theory, complex numbers were treated more as a mathematical convenience than a fundamental building block,” says physicist Jingyun Fan of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Some physicists have attempted to build quantum theory using real numbers only, avoiding the imaginary realm with versions called “real quantum mechanics.” But without an experimental test of such theories, the question remained whether imaginary numbers were truly necessary in quantum physics, or just a useful computational tool.

    A type of experiment known as a Bell test resolved a different quantum quandary, proving that quantum mechanics really requires strange quantum linkages between particles called entanglement (SN: 8/28/15). “We started thinking about whether an experiment of this sort could also refute real quantum mechanics,” says theoretical physicist Miguel Navascués of the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information Vienna. He and colleagues laid out a plan for an experiment in a paper posted online at arXiv.org in January 2021 and published December 15 in Nature.

    In this plan, researchers would send pairs of entangled particles from two different sources to three different people, named according to conventional physics lingo as Alice, Bob and Charlie. Alice receives one particle, and can measure it using various settings that she chooses. Charlie does the same. Bob receives two particles and performs a special type of measurement to entangle the particles that Alice and Charlie receive. A real quantum theory, with no imaginary numbers, would predict different results than standard quantum physics, allowing the experiment to distinguish which one is correct.

    Fan and colleagues performed such an experiment using photons, or particles of light, they report in a paper to be published in Physical Review Letters. By studying how Alice, Charlie and Bob’s results compare across many measurements, Fan, Navascués and colleagues show that the data could be described only by a quantum theory with complex numbers.

    Another team of physicists conducted an experiment based on the same concept using a quantum computer made with superconductors, materials which conduct electricity without resistance. Those researchers, too, found that quantum physics requires complex numbers, they report in another paper to be published in Physical Review Letters. “We are curious about why complex numbers are necessary and play a fundamental role in quantum mechanics,” says quantum physicist Chao-Yang Lu of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, a coauthor of the study.

    But the results don’t rule out all theories that eschew imaginary numbers, notes theoretical physicist Jerry Finkelstein of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who was not involved with the new studies. The study eliminated certain theories based on real numbers, namely those that still follow the conventions of quantum mechanics. It’s still possible to explain the results without imaginary numbers by using a theory that breaks standard quantum rules. But those theories run into other conceptual issues, making them “ugly,” he says. But “if you’re willing to put up with the ugliness, then you can have a real quantum theory.”

    Despite the caveat, other physicists agree that the quandaries raised by the new findings are compelling. “I find it intriguing when you ask questions about why is quantum mechanics the way it is,” says physicist Krister Shalm of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo. Asking whether quantum theory could be simpler or if it contains anything unnecessary, “these are very interesting and thought-provoking questions.” More

  • in

    Physicists have coaxed ultracold atoms into an elusive form of quantum matter

    An elusive form of matter called a quantum spin liquid isn’t a liquid, and it doesn’t spin — but it sure is quantum.

    Predicted nearly 50 years ago, quantum spin liquids have long evaded definitive detection in the laboratory. But now, a lattice of ultracold atoms held in place with lasers has shown hallmarks of the long-sought form of matter, researchers report in the Dec. 3 Science.

    Quantum entanglement goes into overdrive in the newly fashioned material. Even atoms on opposite sides of the lattice share entanglement, or quantum links, meaning that the properties of distant atoms are correlated with one another. “It’s very, very entangled,” says physicist Giulia Semeghini of Harvard University, a coauthor of the new study. “If you pick any two points of your system, they are connected to each other through this huge entanglement.” This strong, long-range entanglement could prove useful for building quantum computers, the researchers say.

    The new material matches predictions for a quantum spin liquid, although its makeup strays a bit from conventional expectations. While the traditional idea of a quantum spin liquid relies on the quantum property of spin, which gives atoms magnetic fields, the new material is based on different atomic quirks.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    A standard quantum spin liquid should arise among atoms whose spins are in conflict. Spin causes atoms to act as tiny magnets. Normally, at low temperatures, those atoms would align their magnetic poles in a regular pattern. For example, if one atom points up, its neighbors point down. But if atoms are arranged in a triangle, for example, each atom has two neighbors that themselves point in opposite directions. That arrangement leaves the third one with nowhere to turn — it can’t oppose both of its neighbors at once.

    So atoms in quantum spin liquids refuse to choose (SN: 9/21/21). Instead, the atoms wind up in a superposition, a quantum combination of spin up and down, and each atom’s state is linked with those of its compatriots. The atoms are constantly fluctuating and never settle down into an orderly arrangement of spins, similarly to how atoms in a normal liquid are scattered about rather than arranged in a regularly repeating pattern, hence the name.

    Conclusive evidence of quantum spin liquids has been hard to come by in solid materials. In the new study, the researchers took a different tack: They created an artificial material composed of 219 trapped rubidium atoms cooled to a temperature of around 10 microkelvins (about –273.15° Celsius). The array of atoms, known as a programmable quantum simulator, allows scientists to fine-tune how atoms interact to investigate exotic forms of quantum matter.

    In the new experiment, rather than the atoms’ spins being in opposition, a different property created disagreement. The researchers used lasers to put the atoms into Rydberg states, meaning one of an atom’s electrons is bumped to a very high energy level (SN: 8/29/16). If one atom is in a Rydberg state, its neighbors prefer not to be. That setup begets a Rydberg-or-not discord, analogous to the spin-up and -down battle in a traditional quantum spin liquid.

    The scientists confirmed the quantum spin liquid effect by studying the properties of atoms that fell along loops traced through the material. According to quantum math, those atoms should have exhibited certain properties unique to quantum spin liquids. The results matched expectations for a quantum spin liquid and revealed that long-range entanglement was present.

    Notably, the material’s entanglement is topological. That means it is described by a branch of mathematics called topology, in which an object is defined by certain geometrical properties, for example, its number of holes (SN: 10/4/16). Topology can protect information from being destroyed: A bagel that falls off the counter will still have exactly one hole, for example. This information-preserving feature could be a boon to quantum computers, which must grapple with fragile, easily destroyed quantum information that makes calculations subject to mistakes (SN: 6/22/20).

    Whether the material truly qualifies as a quantum spin liquid, despite not being based on spin, depends on your choice of language, says theoretical physicist Christopher Laumann of Boston University, who was not involved with the study. Some physicists use the term “spin” to describe other systems with two possible options, because it has the same mathematics as atomic spins that can point either up or down. “Words have meaning, until they don’t,” he quips. It all depends how you spin them. More

  • in

    Scientists finally detected a quantum effect that blocks atoms from scattering light

    A cloud of ultracold atoms is like a motel with a neon “no vacancy” sign.

    If a guest at the motel wants to switch rooms, they’re out of luck. No vacant rooms means there’s no choice but to stay put. Likewise, in new experiments, atoms boxed in by crowded conditions have no way to switch up their quantum states. That constraint means the atoms don’t scatter light as they normally would, three teams of researchers report in the Nov. 19 Science. Predicted more than three decades ago, this effect has now been seen for the first time.

    Under normal circumstances, atoms interact readily with light. Shine a beam of light on a cloud of atoms, and they’ll scatter some of that light in all directions. This type of light scattering is a common phenomenon: It happens in Earth’s atmosphere. “We see the sky as blue because of scattered radiation from the sun,” says Yair Margalit, who was part of the team at MIT that performed one of the experiments.

    But quantum physics comes to the fore in ultracold, dense atom clouds. “The way they interact with light or scatter light is different,” says physicist Amita Deb of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, a coauthor of another of the studies.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    According to a rule called the Pauli exclusion principle, atoms in the experiments can’t take on the same quantum state — namely, they can’t have the same momentum as another atom in the experiment (SN: 5/19/20). If atoms are packed together in a dense cloud and cooled to near absolute zero, they’ll settle into the lowest-energy quantum states. Those low-energy states will be entirely filled, like a motel with no open rooms.

    When an atom scatters light, it gets a kick of momentum, changing its quantum state, as it sends light off in another direction. But if the atom can’t change its state due to the crowded conditions, it won’t scatter the light. The atom cloud becomes more transparent, letting light through instead of scattering it.  

    To observe the effect, Margalit and colleagues beamed light through a cloud of lithium atoms, measuring the amount of light it scattered. Then, the team decreased the temperature to make the atoms fill up the lowest energy states, suppressing the scattering of light. As the temperature dropped, the atoms scattered 37 percent less light, indicating that many atoms were prevented from scattering light. (Some atoms can still scatter light, for example if they get kicked into higher-energy quantum states that are unoccupied.)

    In another experiment, physicist Christian Sanner of the research institute JILA in Boulder, Colo., and colleagues studied a cloud of ultracold strontium atoms. The researchers measured how much light was scattered at small angles, for which the atoms are jostled less by the light and therefore are even less likely to be able to find an unoccupied quantum state. At lower temperatures, the atoms scattered half as much light as at higher temperatures.

    The third experiment, performed by Deb and physicist Niels Kjærgaard, also of the University of Otago, measured a similar scattering drop in an ultracold potassium atom cloud and a corresponding increase in how much light was transmitted through the cloud.

    Because the Pauli exclusion principle also governs how electrons, protons and neutrons behave, it is responsible for the structure of atoms and matter as we know it. These new results reveal the wide-ranging principle in a new context, says Sanner. “It’s fascinating because it shows a very fundamental principle in nature at work.”

    The work also suggests new ways to control light and atoms. “One could imagine a lot of interesting applications,” says theoretical physicist Peter Zoller of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, who was not involved with the research. In particular, light scattering is closely related to a process called spontaneous emission, in which an atom in a high-energy state decays to a lower energy by emitting light. The results suggest that decay could be blocked, increasing the lifetime of the energetic state. Such a technique might be useful for storing quantum information for a lengthier period of time than is normally possible, for example in a quantum computer.

    So far, these applications are still theoretical, Zoller says. “How realistic they are is something to be explored in the future.” More

  • in

    Researchers have unlocked the secret to pearls’ incredible symmetry

    For centuries, researchers have puzzled over how oysters grow stunningly symmetrical, perfectly round pearls around irregularly shaped grains of sand or bits of debris. Now a team has shown that oysters, mussels and other mollusks use a complex process to grow the gems that follows mathematical rules seen throughout nature.

    Pearls are formed when an irritant gets trapped inside a mollusk, and the animal protects itself by building smooth layers of mineral and protein — together called nacre — around it. Each new layer of nacre built over this asymmetrical center adapts precisely to the ones preceding it, smoothing out irregularities to result in a round pearl, according to an analysis published October 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Nacre is this incredibly beautiful, iridescent, shiny material that we see in the insides of some seashells or on the outside of pearls,” says Laura Otter, a biogeochemist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

    A pearl’s symmetrical growth as it lays down layers of nacre relies on the mollusk balancing two basic capabilities, Otter and her colleagues discovered. It corrects growth aberrations that appear as the pearl forms, preventing those variations from propagating over the pearl’s many layers. Otherwise, the resulting gem would be lopsided.

    Sign Up For the Latest from Science News

    Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered to your inbox

    Thank you for signing up!

    There was a problem signing you up.

    Additionally, the mollusk modulates the thickness of nacre layers, so that if one layer is especially thick, subsequent layers will be thinner in response (SN: 3/24/14). This helps the pearl maintain a similar average thickness over its thousands of layers so that it looks perfectly round and uniform. Without that constant adjustment, a pearl might resemble stratified sedimentary rock, amplifying small imperfections that detract from its spherical shape.

    The researchers studied keshi pearls collected from Akoya pearl oysters (Pinctada imbricata fucata) at an eastern Australia coastal pearl farm. They used a diamond wire saw to cut the pearls into cross sections, then polished and examined the gems using Raman spectroscopy, a nondestructive technique that allowed them to characterize the pearls’ structure. For one of the pearls showcased in the paper, they counted 2,615 layers, which were deposited over 548 days.

    This cross section of a keshi pearl shows that the round gem grows around a misshapen lump of debris.Jiseok Gim

    The analysis revealed that fluctuations in the thicknesses of the pearls’ layers of nacre exhibit a phenomenon called 1/f noise, or pink noise, in which events that appear to be random are actually connected. In this case, the formation of nacre layers of different thicknesses may appear random, but is actually dependent on the thickness of previous layers. The same phenomenon is at work in seismic activity: The rumbling of the ground seems random, but is actually connected to previous recent seismic activity. Pink noise also crops up in classical music and even when monitoring heartbeats and brain activity, says coauthor Robert Hovden, a materials scientist and engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  These phenomena “belong to a universal class of behavior and physics,” Hovden says.

    This is the first time that researchers have reported “that nacre self-heals and when a defect arises, it heals itself within a few [layers], without using an external scaffolding or template,” says Pupa Gilbert, a physicist studying biomineralization at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who wasn’t involved with the study. “Nacre is an even more remarkable material than we had previously appreciated.”

    Notes Otter: “These humble creatures are making a super light and super tough material so much more easily and better than we do with all our technology.” Made of just calcium, carbonate and protein, nacre is “3,000 times tougher than the materials from which it’s made of.”

    This new understanding of pearls, Hovden adds, could inspire “the next generation of super materials,” such as more energy-efficient solar panels or tough and heat-resistant materials optimized for use in spacecraft. More

  • in

    Lithium-ion batteries made with recycled materials can outlast newer counterparts

    Lithium-ion batteries with recycled cathodes can outperform batteries with cathodes made from pristine materials, lasting for thousands of additional charging cycles, a study finds. Growing demand for these batteries — which power devices from smartphones to electric vehicles — may outstrip the world’s supply of some crucial ingredients, such as cobalt (SN: 5/7/19). Ramping up recycling could help avert a potential shortage. But some manufacturers worry that impurities in recycled materials may cause battery performance to falter.

    “Based on our study, recycled materials can perform as well as, or even better than, virgin materials,” says materials scientist Yan Wang of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

    Using shredded spent batteries, Wang and colleagues extracted the electrodes and dissolved the metals from those battery bits in an acidic solution. By tweaking the solution’s pH, the team removed impurities such as iron and copper and recovered over 90 percent of three key metals: nickel, manganese and cobalt. The recovered metals formed the basis for the team’s cathode material.

    In tests of how well batteries maintain their capacity to store energy after repeated use and recharging, batteries with recycled cathodes outperformed ones made with brand-new commercial materials of the same composition. It took 11,600 charging cycles for the batteries with recycled cathodes to lose 30 percent of their initial capacity. That’s about 50 percent better than the respectable 7,600 cycles for the batteries with new cathodes, the team reports October 15 in Joule. Those thousands of extra cycles could translate into years of better battery performance, Wang says. More