Danish researchers make electric discovery

First find of new electric form of solids in almost 100 years

Not many can boast that on a normal day, doing a normal experiment, they stumble upon the discovery of a new electrical phenomenon.

Two young physicists in the basement of Aarhus University were studying how electrons pass through nitrous oxide when they noticed something odd in the behaviour of gas molecules, reports Videnskab.

The two researchers found that when they froze the nitrous oxide down to minus 223 degrees, the gas molecules settled as a very thin film on the metal surface, indicating the presence of an electrical field: something that should not exist on the icy surface.

”They came and knocked on my door and said: 'David, there's something wrong,'” David Field, a professor emeritus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University, told Videnskab. ”We first thought that there had to be some mistake in the experiment.”

After a few days of continued experimentation, the results remained the same – they had discovered a new electrical phenomenon.

Spontaneous discovery
”It is the first time since the 1920s that there has been a discovery of a new electric form of solids,” said Field.

Field finds it ”incredible” that scientists have been working with thin layers of materials for more than 50 years and hadn't made this discovery earlier.

Since this discovery in 2009 researchers have found that the electrical phenomenon also occurs in 12 other materials, such as carbon monoxide, propane and toulene, under the same circumstances – icy cold temperatures and microscopically thin layers.

The phenomenon has been dubbed 'spontelectrics', referring to the spontaneous occurrence of this electric field.

Uses unclear
According to Field, the spontaneous electrical field has an ”enormous strength” that can be ”more than 100 million volts per metre”, but due to the fact that it needs very low temperatures to occur, ”it's probably not practical to use it to generate electricity."

”One might hope that we find materials where spontelectrics occurs at room temperature,” said Field.

However, Field reckons that this phenomenon could have a ”huge impact” in understanding how stars are born.