How cold do you drink your cold brew? Poured over ice? As an experimental physicist who works with liquid nitrogen (& helium), I was initially quite intrigued to learn of nitro cold brew coffee. Could it be coffee that somehow uses liquid nitrogen to fast-cool it, what would that do to the taste? You would expect liquid nitrogen (at -196ºC) to rapidly cool the coffee below its freezing point, after all, it is how Heston Blumenthal makes ice cream. To make a drink-able cold-brew with liquid nitrogen would require great skill, especially given the potential health risks. It would be another situation where you may well ask yourself, “what’s the point?”
However, it turned out that the reality was far more mundane, gaseous nitrogen is passed through cold brew coffee to create a drink with a silky mouthfeel. A smooth drink that comes straight from the tap just like stout. Such a drink is going to behave as an ordinary liquid and chilled only to the point that it is kept in the vat. The novelty would presumably come from the mouthfeel introduced by the many tiny bubbles distributed through the drink. Just as with water, if you cooled the nitro-brew below its freezing point it would solidify and form coffee cubes. No real difference to get excited about. But what if there was a very different sort of liquid, a “super liquid”, that didn’t behave like water, coffee or even liquid nitrogen but one that could leak through solid cups?
Superfluid helium is such a liquid. Like water, oil or even liquid nitrogen, when you cool helium (the same gas that is in party balloons)∗, it becomes an ordinary (but very cold) liquid at -269ºC. But unlike those liquids, when you cool it further, below -271ºC, it does something very odd indeed. It becomes a superfluid in which the liquid moves with zero friction or equivalently, zero viscosity (honey is very viscous, water is very much less so). And it is because of these properties that it can do some astonishing things such as stream through cracks in containers that were thought impermeable (see the video at 0:52m), or even climb the walls of the container it is in (1:13m)!
To explain the behaviour of superfluid helium it is necessary to use quantum mechanics. Indeed, Fritz London (1900-1954) is said to have described both superfluidity and superconductivity (which happens in solids) as “quantum mechanisms on a macroscopic scale”. At the heart of the theory of superfluidity is the idea that the helium atoms fall into the lowest energy ground state possible, a Bose-Einstein condensate. To form a Bose-Einstein condensate, the particles (atoms of helium) have to be bosons rather than fermions. All particles in nature can be categorised as either bosons or fermions. The difference between the two types comes from another quantum property of particles, the spin. Spin is related to the angular momentum of the particles and, this being quantum mechanics, can take only discrete values, either whole number or half integer numbers.
Bosons are particles with integer values for spin, fermions are particles with half integer values. Most of the elementary particles you will have heard of are fermions: electrons, protons, neutrons, they’re all fermions. Some particles however, such as the photon (the particle of light) are bosons. Helium 4 atoms are effectively composite bosons, because of the combination of 2 protons, 2 neutrons and 2 electrons that make up the atom. When you add their individual (half-integer) spins, you will get an integer spin, hence a boson not a fermion. The distinction is important because while bosons can share a lowest energy state (the Bose-Einstein condensate), fermions cannot. Quantum mechanically, no two identical fermions can share an energy level (the Pauli exclusion principle), so you can never get to a state where all the fermions are in the lowest energy state. There are practical, every day consequences of this for us, such as the way metals such as copper conduct electricity and heat, the fact that the electrons in the metal are fermions turns out to be crucial for us to understand how metals ‘work’. In contrast, the fact that the helium atoms are in the lowest energy state in super-fluid helium means that the ‘liquid’ behaves very strangely indeed.
We seem to have come a long way from the idea of a cold coffee. But perhaps next time, if someone offers you a “super cold brew” take a moment to think of the physicists who get to play with some real super cold superfluids†. Hope you enjoy the video.
*Technically it is Helium 4 that becomes superfluid at 2.2 K (-271ºC). The rarer isotope, Helium 3, does not become superfluid until much lower temperatures and even then, the superfluidity has some very special properties.
†Although I do get to work with liquid helium (and although it is mostly helium 4), I work at the relatively ‘hot’ temperatures at about -269C. At this temperature the interest is not so much in the liquid helium itself but its use as a coolant for other materials.