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Quantum Forces: Strange Material Shrinks When it Warms Up

First Posted: Oct 10, 2015 01:18 AM EDT

A strange, quantum material actually shrinks when it's warmed up. Scientists are investigating a substance that unlike most materials, shrinks when it gets hot.

In other materials, thermal expansion occurs when it becomes warm. This, in turn, can cause cracking and warping in various materials. In fact, you can see the side effects each and every day in buildings, bridges, electronics, and almost anything else exposed to a wide variety of temperature swings.

The easiest way to think about solids is thinking of solids a bit like atoms hooked together by springs. When it becomes warm, the springs stretch and flex. Because each spring puts pressure on its neighboring springs, all springs expand the same amount; in fact, the forces they exert on each other should, in theory, be symmetrical.

This isn't, however, the best way to think about thermal expansion. In this case, the researchers examined a material known as scandium trifluoride because it exhibits strange behavior in comparison to other solids; it actually shrinks when exposed to heat rather than expanding. In addition, it keeps the same, stable cubic structure over a large temperature range.

The researchers used X-rays to see exactly what was happening with scandium trifluoride. The scientists found that the columns of molecules that made up this material actually rotated in place, even at close to zero degrees.

So what does this mean? The findings indicate that there may just be a relationship between quantum forces and the shrinkage of the material experiences as it warms.

The findings are published in the journal Physical Review B.

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