There's no hard evidence yet, but scientists say they have discovered a substance that may represent a whole new category of solids.
Dubbed q-glass, the newly observed substance seems to fall into neither of two familiar categories of solids--conventional crystals or glasses. Nor does it seem to belong to a more esoteric family of solids that physicists call quasicrystals.
"Strangest material I ever saw," one of the researchers behind the discovery, Dr. Lyle Levine of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., said in a written statement. "It's amazing. Everything you can think about this thing behaves like a crystal, except it isn't."
Ordinary crystalline solids are composed of orderly arrangements of atoms. In contrast, the atoms that make up glasses are haphazardly arranged--as if a liquid had been frozen so quickly its constituent parts didn't have time to arrange themselves. Quasicrystals are similar to ordinary crystals but differ in certain key ways.
What about q-glass? The research showed that the q-glass grows outward from “seeds” and that each atom "knows" where to go. This suggests an ordered structure similar to a crystal or a quasicrystal. But unlike crystals, q-glass--patches of which were observed in a rapidly cooled mixture of aluminum, iron, and silicon--doesn't demonstrate symmetry. That means the atoms that make it up wouldn't align if you were to rotate a sample of it or try to take out a section and slide it up, down, in, out, or sideways.
It's too soon to tell whether q-glass is an important new material or just a scientific curiosity, Levine told The Huffington Post in an email. But perhaps more important at this early stage of research is this question: Is q-glass really a new kind of solid matter?
"I'm not sure," Levine told HuffPost. "We currently see two possibilities: one, a completely new type of atomic structure where the atomic positions are fully determined...or two, a material that is trying to grow into a more conventional crystalline or quasicrystalline structure but that experiences some kind of structural 'frustration' as it forms."
In an effort to pinpoint the exact nature of q-glass, the researchers performed various tests using Argonne National Laboratory's Advanced Photon Source research facility, according to the statement. But Levine said that it "would require extensive work and verification by the scientific community" to prove that q-glass is a new solid.
A paper describing the research on q-glass, which was conducted by scientists at NIST and Argonne National Lab, was published in Physical Review Letters.