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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 January 2004, 14:38 GMT
New form of matter created in lab
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Atoms, University of Colorado
Cold atoms make new matter
Scientists have created a new form of matter, which they say could lead to new ways of transmitting electricity.

The fermionic condensate is a cloud of cold potassium atoms forced into a state where they behave strangely.

The new matter is the sixth known form of matter after solids, liquids, gases, plasma and a Bose-Einstein condensate, created only in 1995.

"What we've done is create this new exotic form of matter," says Deborah Jin of the University of Colorado.

Strange brew

To make the condensate the researchers cooled potassium gas to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero - the temperature at which matter stops moving.

They confined the gas in a vacuum chamber and used magnetic fields and laser light to manipulate the potassium atoms into pairing up and forming the fermionic condensate.

Jin pointed out that her team worked with a supercooled gas, which provides little opportunity for everyday application. But the way the potassium atoms acted suggested there should be a way to turn it into a room-temperature solid.

It could be a step closer to an everyday, usable superconductor - a material that conducts electricity without losing any of its energy.

"If you had a superconductor you could transmit electricity with no losses," Jin said.

"Right now something like 10% of all electricity we produce in the United States is lost. It heats up wires. It doesn't do anybody any good."

Superconductor technology is being fed into the development of magnetically levitated trains. Free of friction these vehicles glide along at high speeds using a fraction of the energy of conventional trains.

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