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Concept# Quantum critical point

Summary

A quantum critical point is a point in the phase diagram of a material where a continuous phase transition takes place at absolute zero. A quantum critical point is typically achieved by a continuous suppression of a nonzero temperature phase transition to zero temperature by the application of a pressure, field, or through doping. Conventional phase transitions occur at nonzero temperature when the growth of random thermal fluctuations leads to a change in the physical state of a system. Condensed matter physics research over the past few decades has revealed a new class of phase transitions called quantum phase transitions which take place at absolute zero. In the absence of the thermal fluctuations which trigger conventional phase transitions, quantum phase transitions are driven by the zero point quantum fluctuations associated with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
Within the class of phase transitions, there are two main categories: at a first-order phase transition, the properties shift discontinuously, as in the melting of solid, whereas at a second order phase transition, the state of the system changes in a continuous fashion. Second-order phase transitions are marked by the growth of fluctuations on ever-longer length-scales. These fluctuations are called "critical fluctuations". At the critical point where a second-order transition occurs the critical fluctuations are scale invariant and extend over the entire system. At a nonzero temperature phase transition, the fluctuations that develop at a critical point are governed by classical physics, because the characteristic energy of quantum fluctuations is always smaller than the characteristic Boltzmann thermal energy .
At a quantum critical point, the critical fluctuations are quantum mechanical in nature, exhibiting scale invariance in both space and in time. Unlike classical critical points, where the critical fluctuations are limited to a narrow region around the phase transition, the influence of a quantum critical point is felt over a wide range of temperatures above the quantum critical point, so the effect of quantum criticality is felt without ever reaching absolute zero.

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