There was a time when states of matter were simple: Solid, liquid, gas. Then came plasma, Bose -Einstein condensate, supercritical fluid and more. Now the list has grown by one more, with the unexpected discovery of a new state dubbed “dropletons” that bear some resemblance to liquids but occur under very different circumstances. The discovery occurred when a team at the University of Colorado Joint Institute for Lab Astrophysics were focusing laser light on gallium arsenide (GaAs) to create excitons.
Interacting many-body systems are characterized by stable configurations of objects—ranging from elementary particles to cosmological formations1, 2, 3—that also act as building blocks for more complicated structures. It is often possible to incorporate interactions in theoretical treatments of crystalline solids by introducing suitable quasiparticles that have an effective mass, spin or charge4, 5 which in turn affects the material’s conductivity, optical response or phase transitions2, 6, 7. Additional quasiparticle interactions may also create strongly correlated configurations yielding new macroscopic phenomena, such as the emergence of a Mott insulator8, superconductivity or the pseudogap phase of high-temperature superconductors9, 10,11. In semiconductors, a conduction-band electron attracts a valence-band hole (electronic vacancy) to create a bound pair, known as an exciton12, 13, which is yet another quasiparticle. Two excitons may also bind together to give molecules, often referred to as biexcitons14, and even polyexcitons may exist15, 16. In indirect-gap semiconductors such as germanium or silicon, a thermodynamic phase transition may produce electron–hole droplets whose diameter can approach the micrometre range17, 18. In direct-gap semiconductors such as gallium arsenide, the exciton lifetime is too short for such a thermodynamic process. Instead, different quasiparticle configurations are stabilized dominantly by many-body interactions, not by thermalization. The resulting non-equilibrium quantum kinetics is so complicated that stable aggregates containing three or more Coulomb-correlated electron–hole pairs remain mostly unexplored.
Researchers now studied such a complex aggregates and identified a new stable configuration of charged particles called a quantum droplet. This configuration exists in a plasma and exhibits quantization owing to its small size. It is charge neutral and contains a small number of particles with a pair-correlation function that is characteristic of a liquid. There is experimental and theoretical evidence for the existence of quantum droplets in an electron–hole plasma created in a gallium arsenide quantum well by ultrashort optical pulses.