Q-glass, a new breed of solid material.

Q-glass, a new breed of solid material.

Credit: Courtesy of NIST.

Just when we thought science had all the answers, a recent discovery has upset conventional wisdom about material behavior. Scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Argonne National Laboratory have announced their surprise discovery of a new class of solid. Named "q-glass," the material represents an additional category of solid matter beyond the standard classes of crystals, glasses, and quasicrystals.

"Very weird. Strangest material I ever saw," said NIST materials physicist Lyle Levine in a NIST press release.

Levine and his research collaborators first noticed the material within a rapidly cooled alloy of aluminum, iron, and silicon. Spherical-shaped nodules emerged that possessed a disordered composition not found in crystals; however, the nodules exhibited regular growth patterns from initial "seeds," something not found in glasses. Crystals are often identified by symmetry—either translational or rotational—and glasses are often identified by the complete lack of symmetry. This case represents a peculiar hybrid with no scientific precedent.

"[O]ne exciting possibility is that the q-glass is the first example of a 3-dimensionally ordered configuration of atoms that possesses neither translational nor rotational symmetry," Levine said in the release. "Such structures have been theorized by mathematicians, but never before observed in nature."

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.