Oh man, this is cool!
“Very weird. Strangest material I ever saw,” said Dr Lyle Levine, a materials physicist with the NIST and a co-author of a paper published in the Physical Review Letters.
The material appears to have none of the extended ordering of atoms found in crystals, which would make it a glass, except that it has a very defined composition and grows outward from ‘seeds’ – things that glasses most assuredly do not do.
The solids catalog used to be pretty straightforward. Solid stuff was either a crystal or a glass. Crystals fill up space with atoms or molecules in specific, fairly rigid patterns. The positions of the atoms are fixed such that if you take any section of pure crystal and slide it up, down, in, out or sideways a given distance, it will fit perfectly in the new position. That’s translational symmetry. You can also spin the crystal through certain angles and the atoms also will line up; that’s rotational symmetry.
Glasses have neither symmetry. They’re just a random arrangement of their components, as if you’d taken a liquid and suddenly frozen everything in place without giving the atoms a chance to get in order. Which, in fact, is how metallic glasses are made.
“The new material, which the research team has provisionally dubbed a ‘q-glass,’ can be shown by X-ray diffraction to have neither rotational nor translational symmetry, just like a glass, but regardless, the atomic arrangement apparently is not random. As the nodule grows, every atom still knows where to go,” Dr Levine said.