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As of two months ago, there is one less elusive particle for quantum scientists to track down: the Majorana fermion. A group of nanoscientists from the Kavli Institute, and from the Delft University of Technology’s Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM Foundation) in the Netherlands, has been able to detect the particle for the first time.
The Majorana fermion can revise scientists’ understanding of matter and anti-matter, change ideas about fundamental physics and cosmology, and revolutionize the construction of quantum computers.
The existence of the Majorana fermion, an elementary particle, was proposed by Italian theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana in the 1930s. Majorana, who mostly researched neutrino masses, provided scientists a solution to a set of equations from which elementary particles can be deduced. Most have been found since then. Others, such as the Higgs boson, currently being hunted by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, have not.
All particles have their opposites, or an “anti” version. For example, the anti-particle of the electron is the positron. The Majorana fermion is special, unique to other particles: it is its own anti-particle, essentially made up of matter and anti-matter.
The research group was led by Dutch nanoscientist Leo Kouwenhoven, a professor of physics at TU Delft. Kouwenhoven and his team constructed a nanoscale electronic device, which they created with a nanowire combined with superconducting material and a strong magnetic field. After applying voltage to the device, they were able to detect the particles in the device, in which, according to TU Delft, “a pair of Majorana fermions ‘appear’ at either end of a nanowire.”
“If you take a solid material and you make the right combinations,” Kouwenhoven tells BBC News, “the natural particles living in these condensed matter structures will also obey this defining property of Majorana fermions – that a particle is equal its anti-particle.”
Not only would the discovery provide a better understanding of why there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe, but it could also help physicists confirm a theory stating that dark matter is really composed of Majorana fermions. Dark matter, a mysterious substance that accounts for 74% of the universe, has been puzzling scientists for decades.
The Majorana fermion is also capable of changing the way quantum computers function. Computers made with these particles would be more stable than those that are composed of other particles. They would also be less sensitive to external stimuli. Microsoft, who partially funded the research, hopes to produce quantum computers in the future.
Kouwenhoven and his team published their research in the journal Science on April 12.