Frustrated interactions are key to a wide range of phenomena, from protein folding and magnetic memory to fundamental studies of emergent exotic states.
Geometrical frustration and “spin ice”
When bar magnets are brought together, opposite poles will attract and like poles will repel, and the magnets will arrange themselves accordingly, to minimize energy. However, if the magnets are constrained to a lattice structure where each one has just two possible orientations, some magnets could end up geometrically “frustrated,” with neither orientation being lower in energy than the other. The system becomes what’s known as a “spin ice,” analogous to water ice, which retains intrinsic randomness (residual entropy) even at absolute zero.
Systems incorporating geometrical frustration are fascinating because their hard-to-predict behavior is key to a wide range of phenomena, from protein folding and magnetic memory to the emergence of exotic states of matter. For example, the emergence of magnetic monopole–like excitations in spin ice raises the intriguing possibility of “magnetic-charge” circuitry based on currents of magnetic monopole excitations.
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Image: (extract, entire image here) Magnetic scattering patterns calculated from XMCD data for various lattice parameters. While relatively sharp peaks indicative of long-range order are seen in (a) and (c), the diffuse patterns in (b) indicate highly disordered configurations.