The researchers call the new state of matter "a quasi-three-dimensional electron crystal." It was discovered using a device cooled to a temperature about 100 times colder than intergalactic space, following the application of the most powerful continuous magnetic field on Earth.
Two-dimensional electron crystals were discovered in the 1990s, and were predicted in 1934 by Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner. They are thus known as Wigner crystals.
Dr. Guillaume Gervais, director of McGill's Ultra-Low Temperature Condensed Matter Experiment Lab, describes them in terms of a ham sandwich, where the ham -- the two-dimensional crystal -- represents a flat plane that constrains the movement of the electrons in two dimensions.
"We decided to tweak the two-dimensionality by applying a very large magnetic field, using the largest magnet in the world at the Magnet Lab in Florida," said Gervais in a statement. "You only have access to it for about five days a year, and on the third day, something totally unexpected popped."
The "popping" was the creation inside the semiconductor material of a "quasi-three-dimensional system," something that had existed in theory but, until then, not in fact.
Gervais believes the strange state of matter could help improve transistors as they approach the physical density limit imposed by the laws of physics in the coming decade or so.
"This issue is academic, but it's not just academic," said Gervais in a statement. "The same semiconductor materials we're working with are currently used in cell phones and other electronic devices. We need to understand quantum effects so we can use them to our own advantage and perhaps reinvent the transistor altogether. That way, progress in electronics will keep happening."