Low-temperature States of matter

Raniya Afsal
Updated on


Superconductors are materials that have zero electrical resistivity, and therefore perfect conductivity. This is a distinct physical state which exists at low temperature, and the resistivity increases discontinuously to a finite value at a sharply-defined transition temperature for each superconductor.

A superconductor also excludes all magnetic fields from its interior, a phenomenon known as the Meissner effect or perfect diamagnetism. Superconducting magnets are used as electromagnets in magnetic resonance imaging machines.

The phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered in 1911, and for 75 years was only known in some metals and metallic alloys at temperatures below 30 K. In 1986 so-called high-temperature superconductivity was discovered in certain ceramic oxides and has now been observed in temperatures as high as 164 K.


Liquid helium in a superfluid phase creeps up on the walls of the cup in a Rollin film, eventually dripping out from the cup

Close to absolute zero, some liquids form a second liquid state described as superfluid because it has zero viscosity (or infinite fluidity; i.e., flowing without friction). This was discovered in 1937 for helium, which forms a superfluid below the lambda temperature of 2.17 K (−270.98 °C; −455.76 °F). In this state it will attempt to “climb” out of its container. It also has infinite thermal conductivity so that no temperature gradient can form in a superfluid. Placing a superfluid in a spinning container will result in quantized vortices.

These properties are explained by the theory that the common isotope helium-4 forms a Bose-Einstein condensate (see next section) in the superfluid state. More recently, Fermionic condensate superfluids have been formed at even lower temperatures by the rare isotope helium-3 and by lithium-6.

Bose-Einstein condensate


Velocity in a gas of rubidium as it is cooled: the starting material is on the left, and Bose-Einstein condensate is on the right.

In 1924, Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose predicted the “Bose-Einstein condensate” (BEC), sometimes referred to as the fifth state of matter. In a BEC, matter stops behaving as independent particles, and collapses into a single quantum state that can be described with a single, uniform wavefunction.

In the gas phase, the Bose-Einstein condensate remained an unverified theoretical prediction for many years. In 1995, the research groups of Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman, of JILA at the University of Colorado at Boulder, produced the first such condensate experimentally. A Bose-Einstein condensate is “colder” than a solid. It may occur when atoms have very similar (or the same) quantum levels, at temperatures very close to absolute zero, −273.15 °C (−459.67 °F).

Fermionic condensate

A fermionic condensate is similar to the Bose-Einstein condensate but composed of fermions. The Pauli exclusion principle prevents fermions from entering the same quantum state, but a pair of fermions can behave as a boson, and multiple such pairs can then enter the same quantum state without restriction.

Rydberg molecule

One of the metastable states of strongly non-ideal plasma are condensates of excited atoms, called Rydberg matter. These atoms can also turn into ions and electrons if they reach a certain temperature. In April 2009, Nature reported the creation of Rydberg molecules from a Rydberg atom and a ground state atom, confirming that such a state of matter could exist. The experiment was performed using ultracold rubidium atoms.

Quantum Hall state

A quantum Hall state gives rise to quantized Hall voltage measured in the direction perpendicular to the current flow. A quantum spin Hall state is a theoretical phase that may pave the way for the development of electronic devices that dissipate less energy and generate less heat. This is a derivation of the Quantum Hall state of matter.

Photonic matter

Photonic matter is a phenomenon where photons interacting with a gas develop apparent mass, and can interact with each other, even forming photonic “molecules”. The source of mass is the gas, which is massive. This is in contrast to photons moving in empty space, which have no rest mass, and cannot interact.


A “quantum fog” of electrons and holes that flow around each other and even ripple like a liquid, rather than existing as discrete pairs.


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