From Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH): “Water and quantum magnets share critical physics”

From Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH)

Nik Papageorgiou

Water can freeze from liquid to solid ice or boil into a gas. In the kitchen these “phase transitions” aren’t smooth, but their discontinuous nature is smoothed out at high pressure. An international team of physicists led by EPFL has now discovered the same behavior in certain quantum magnets, which may have consequences for the technology of qubits.

In physics things exist in “phases” such as solid; liquid; gas. When something crosses from one phase to another we talk about a “phase transition” – think about water boiling into steam, turning from liquid to gas.

In our kitchens water boils at 100oC, and its density changes dramatically, making a discontinuous jump from liquid to gas. However, if we turn up the pressure, the boiling point of water also increases, until a pressure of 221 atmospheres where it boils at 374oC. Here, something strange happens: the liquid and gas merge into a single phase. Above this “critical point,” there is no longer a phase transition at all, and so by controlling its pressure water can be steered from liquid to gas without ever crossing one.

Is there a quantum version of a water-like phase transition? “The current directions in quantum magnetism and spintronics require highly spin-anisotropic interactions to produce the physics of topological phases and protected qubits, but these interactions also favor discontinuous quantum phase transitions,” says Professor Henrik Rønnow at EPFL’s School of Basic Sciences.

Previous studies have focused on smooth, continuous phase transitions in quantum magnetic materials. Now, in a joint experimental and theoretical project led by Rønnow and Professor Frédéric Mila, also at the School of Basic Sciences, physicists at EPFL and The Paul Scherrer Institute [Paul Scherrer Institut](PSI)(CH) have studied a discontinuous phase transition to observe the first ever critical point in a quantum magnet, similar to that of water. The work is now published in Nature.

The scientists used a “quantum antiferromagnet”, known in the field as SCBO (from its chemical composition: SrCu2(BO3)2). Quantum antiferromagnets are especially useful for understanding how the quantum aspects of a material’s structure affect its overall properties – for example, how the spins of its electrons interact to give its magnetic properties. SCBO is also a “frustrated” magnet, meaning that its electron spins can’t stabilize in some orderly structure, and instead they adopt some uniquely quantum fluctuating states.

In a complex experiment, the researchers controlled both the pressure and the magnetic field applied to milligram pieces of SCBO. “This allowed us to look all around the discontinuous quantum phase transition and that way we found critical-point physics in a pure spin system,” says Rønnow.

The team performed high-precision measurements of the specific heat of SCBO, which shows its readiness to “suck up energy”. For example, water absorbs only small amounts of energy at -10oC, but at 0oC and 100oC it can take up huge amounts as every molecule is driven across the transitions from ice to liquid and liquid to gas. Just like water, the pressure-temperature relationship of SCBO forms a phase diagram showing a discontinuous transition line separating two quantum magnetic phases with the line ending at a critical point.

“Now when a magnetic field is applied, the problem becomes richer than water,” says Frédéric Mila. “Neither magnetic phase is strongly affected by a small field, so the line becomes a wall of discontinuities in a three-dimensional phase diagram – but then one of the phases becomes unstable and the field helps push it towards a third phase.”

To explain this macroscopic quantum behavior, the researchers teamed up with several colleagues, particularly Professor Philippe Corboz at The University of Amsterdam [Universiteit van Amsterdam](NL), who have been developing powerful new computer-based techniques.

“Previously it was not possible to calculate the properties of ‘frustrated’ quantum magnets in a realistic two- or three-dimensional model,” says Mila. “So SCBO provides a well-timed example where the new numerical methods meet reality to provide a quantitative explanation of a phenomenon new to quantum magnetism.”

Henrik Rønnow concludes: “Looking forward, the next generation of functional quantum materials will be switched across discontinuous phase transitions, so a proper understanding of their thermal properties will certainly include the critical point, whose classical version has been known to science for two centuries.”

Other contributors

The University of São Paulo [Universidade de São Paulo](BR)
The University of Amsterdam [Universiteit van Amsterdam](NL)
Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (QA)
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology[香港科技大学] (HK)
The University of Innsbruck [Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck] (AT)
RWTH AACHEN UNIVERSITY [Rheinisch-Westfaelische Technische Hochschule (DE)
CY Cergy Paris University [CY Cergy Paris Université](FR)
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zürich [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich)](CH)
University of Geneva [Université de Genève](CH)

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The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne] (CH) is a research institute and university in Lausanne, Switzerland, that specializes in natural sciences and engineering. It is one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, and it has three main missions: education, research and technology transfer.

The QS World University Rankings ranks EPFL(CH) 14th in the world across all fields in their 2020/2021 ranking, whereas Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranks EPFL(CH) as the world’s 19th best school for Engineering and Technology in 2020.

EPFL(CH) is located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland; the sister institution in the German-speaking part of Switzerland is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zürich [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich)](CH) . Associated with several specialized research institutes, the two universities form the Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) which is directly dependent on the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. In connection with research and teaching activities, EPFL(CH) operates a nuclear reactor CROCUS; a Tokamak Fusion reactor; a Blue Gene/Q Supercomputer; and P3 bio-hazard facilities.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form the Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

The roots of modern-day EPFL(CH) can be traced back to the foundation of a private school under the name École spéciale de Lausanne in 1853 at the initiative of Lois Rivier, a graduate of the École Centrale Paris (FR) and John Gay the then professor and rector of the Académie de Lausanne. At its inception it had only 11 students and the offices was located at Rue du Valentin in Lausanne. In 1869, it became the technical department of the public Académie de Lausanne. When the Académie was reorganised and acquired the status of a university in 1890, the technical faculty changed its name to École d’ingénieurs de l’Université de Lausanne. In 1946, it was renamed the École polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (EPUL). In 1969, the EPUL was separated from the rest of the University of Lausanne and became a federal institute under its current name. EPFL(CH), like ETH Zürich(CH), is thus directly controlled by the Swiss federal government. In contrast, all other universities in Switzerland are controlled by their respective cantonal governments. Following the nomination of Patrick Aebischer as president in 2000, EPFL(CH) has started to develop into the field of life sciences. It absorbed the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC) in 2008.

In 1946, there were 360 students. In 1969, EPFL(CH) had 1,400 students and 55 professors. In the past two decades the university has grown rapidly and as of 2012 roughly 14,000 people study or work on campus, about 9,300 of these being Bachelor, Master or PhD students. The environment at modern day EPFL(CH) is highly international with the school attracting students and researchers from all over the world. More than 125 countries are represented on the campus and the university has two official languages, French and English.


EPFL is organised into eight schools, themselves formed of institutes that group research units (laboratories or chairs) around common themes:

School of Basic Sciences (SB, Jan S. Hesthaven)

Institute of Mathematics (MATH, Victor Panaretos)
Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC, Emsley Lyndon)
Institute of Physics (IPHYS, Harald Brune)
European Centre of Atomic and Molecular Computations (CECAM, Ignacio Pagonabarraga Mora)
Bernoulli Center (CIB, Nicolas Monod)
Biomedical Imaging Research Center (CIBM, Rolf Gruetter)
Interdisciplinary Center for Electron Microscopy (CIME, Cécile Hébert)
Max Planck-EPFL Centre for Molecular Nanosciences and Technology (CMNT, Thomas Rizzo)
Swiss Plasma Center (SPC, Ambrogio Fasoli)
Laboratory of Astrophysics (LASTRO, Jean-Paul Kneib)

School of Engineering (STI, Ali Sayed)

Institute of Electrical Engineering (IEL, Giovanni De Micheli)
Institute of Mechanical Engineering (IGM, Thomas Gmür)
Institute of Materials (IMX, Michaud Véronique)
Institute of Microengineering (IMT, Olivier Martin)
Institute of Bioengineering (IBI, Matthias Lütolf)

School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC, Claudia R. Binder)

Institute of Architecture (IA, Luca Ortelli)
Civil Engineering Institute (IIC, Eugen Brühwiler)
Institute of Urban and Regional Sciences (INTER, Philippe Thalmann)
Environmental Engineering Institute (IIE, David Andrew Barry)

School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC, James Larus)

Algorithms & Theoretical Computer Science
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
Computational Biology
Computer Architecture & Integrated Systems
Data Management & Information Retrieval
Graphics & Vision
Human-Computer Interaction
Information & Communication Theory
Programming Languages & Formal Methods
Security & Cryptography
Signal & Image Processing

School of Life Sciences (SV, Gisou van der Goot)

Bachelor-Master Teaching Section in Life Sciences and Technologies (SSV)
Brain Mind Institute (BMI, Carmen Sandi)
Institute of Bioengineering (IBI, Melody Swartz)
Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC, Douglas Hanahan)
Global Health Institute (GHI, Bruno Lemaitre)
Ten Technology Platforms & Core Facilities (PTECH)
Center for Phenogenomics (CPG)
NCCR Synaptic Bases of Mental Diseases (NCCR-SYNAPSY)

College of Management of Technology (CDM)

Swiss Finance Institute at EPFL (CDM-SFI, Damir Filipovic)
Section of Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship (CDM-PMTE, Daniel Kuhn)
Institute of Technology and Public Policy (CDM-ITPP, Matthias Finger)
Institute of Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship (CDM-MTEI, Ralf Seifert)
Section of Financial Engineering (CDM-IF, Julien Hugonnier)

College of Humanities (CDH, Thomas David)

Human and social sciences teaching program (CDH-SHS, Thomas David)

EPFL Middle East (EME, Dr. Franco Vigliotti)[62]

Section of Energy Management and Sustainability (MES, Prof. Maher Kayal)

In addition to the eight schools there are seven closely related institutions

Swiss Cancer Centre
Center for Biomedical Imaging (CIBM)
Centre for Advanced Modelling Science (CADMOS)
École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL)
Campus Biotech
Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro-engineering
Swiss National Supercomputing Centre