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Materials that look like mosaics of triangular tiles at the atomic level sometimes have paradoxical properties, and quantum physicists have finally found out why.

Using a combination of cutting-edge computational techniques, the scientists found that under special conditions, these triangular-patterned materials can end up in a mashup of three different phases at the same time. The competing phases overlap, with each wrestling for dominance. As a result, the material counterintuitively becomes more ordered when heated up, the scientists report October 19 in Physical Review X.

"This is uncharted territory," says study lead author Alexander Wietek, a research fellow at the Flatiron Institute's Center for Computational Quantum Physics (CCQ) in New York City. "Experimentalists had seen these peculiar properties, but they didn't know what the individual electrons in the materials were doing. Our role as theorists is to understand from the bottom up what's actually happening."

The findings could help researchers develop materials for future electronics, Wietek says. This is because the odd properties, he says, are indicative of an elusive state of matter sought for potential use in error-correcting quantum computing.

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