This Incredible Particle Only Arises in Two Dimensions

Caroline Delbert
·3-min read
Photo credit: inkoly - Getty Images
Photo credit: inkoly - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

Physicists have confirmed the existence of an extraordinary, flat particle that could be the key that unlocks quantum computing.

What is the rare and improbable anyon, and how on Earth did scientists verify them?

“[T]hese particle-like objects only arise in realms confined to two dimensions, and then only under certain circumstances—like at temperatures near absolute zero and in the presence of a strong magnetic field,” Discover explains.

Scientists have theorized about these flat, peculiar “particle-like objects” since the 1980s, and the very nature of them has made it sometimes seem impossible to ever verify them. But the qualities scientists believe anyons have also made them sound very valuable to quantum research and, now, quantum computers.

The objects have many possible positions and "remember," in a way, what has happened. In a press release earlier this fall, Purdue University explains more about the value of anyons:

“Anyons have characteristics not seen in other subatomic particles, including exhibiting fractional charge and fractional statistics that maintain a ‘memory’ of their interactions with other quasiparticles by inducing quantum mechanical phase changes. Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, professor of physics at MIT, gave these quasiparticles the tongue-in-cheek name ‘anyon’" due to their strange behavior because unlike other types of particles, they can adopt ‘any’ quantum phase when their positions are exchanged.”

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It’s these fractional charges that let scientists finally design the exact right experiments to shake loose the real anyons. A coin sorter is a good analogy for a lot of things, and this time is no different: scientists had to find the right series of “sorting” ideas in order to build one experimental setup that would, ultimately, only register the anyons. And having the unique quality of fractional charges gave them, at least, a beginning to work on those experiments.

Following an April paper about using a miniature particle accelerator to notice anyons, in July, researchers from Purdue published their findings after using a microchip etched to route particles through a maze that phased out all other particles. The maze combined an interferometer—a device that uses waves to measure what interferes with them—with a specially designed chip that activates anyons at a ⅓ state.

Photo credit: Purdue University
Photo credit: Purdue University

What results is a measurable phenomenon called anyonic braiding. This is surprising and good, because it confirms the “particle-like” anyons exhibit this particular particle behavior, and because braiding as a behavior has potential for quantum computing. Electrons also braid, but researchers weren’t certain the much weaker charge of anyons would exhibit the same behavior.

Braiding isn’t just for electrons and anyons, either: photons do it, too. "Braiding is a topological phenomenon that has been traditionally associated with electronic devices," photon researcher Mikael Rechtsman said in October.

He continued:

"We hope to show that a whole class of topological phenomena can be useful not only for electronic devices, but also photonic devices, such as lasers, medical imaging, telecommunications, and others. We also expect that this new type of topological physics could be applied to quantum information systems, particularly those based on photons."

Now, the quantum information toolkit includes electrons, protons, and what Discover calls “these strange in-betweeners”: the anyons.

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