Mention uranium, and you may think of two applications right off the bat, nuclear power generation and atomic weapons. These two things may bring some problems to mind, such as nuclear meltdown, fallout, and winter.
Physicists, on the other hand, don’t see things quite so dismally, and continue to experiment with uranium for more benign purposes. One of these discoveries may lead to the use of uranium-based quantum electronic materials in superconductors or liquid crystal displays.
Two Rutgers University physics professors and a researcher from Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] collaborated on a recent paper published in Nature, which rarely publishes pure theory. In this case, though, Nature editors made an exception.
Uranium is a metal, and when cooled to just over absolute zero, less than -428°F, the flow of electricity through the supercooled uranium changes ever so slightly. “Scientists have seen this behavior for 25 years, but it has eluded explanation,” said Piers Coleman, Rutgers professor.
The paper theorizes that supercooled uranium polarizes electrons, forcing them to align with the crystal structure of the uranium. This effect is due to a previously unknown property of uranium, a new order, or symmetry. Changes in order are what make superconducting magnets and liquid crystal displays function.
While uranium-based quantum electronic materials aren’t likely to change the world of electronics or mag-lev trains overnight, the discovery of this new order could lead to advancements in these areas.