Otago researchers hold individual atoms in place in a new experiment

University of Otago researchers have been able to hold individual atoms in place in a new experiment that is said to be a first for quantum physics. The team was able to observe previously unseen complex atomic interactions in their experiment. Previously, these phenomena were only understood through statistical averaging from experiments involving large numbers of atoms.The new experiment improves on current knowledge, offering previously unseen views into the microscopic world of atoms. The team says that their method involves the individual trapping and cooling of three atoms to a temperature that is about a millionth of a Kelvin using highly focused laser beams in a vacuum chamber about the size of a toaster. Scientists say that they slowly combined the traps containing the atoms to produce controlled interactions that they can measure.

The researchers say when the three atoms approach each other, two form a molecule, and all receive a kick from the energy that is released. During the interaction, a microscope camera allows the process to be magnified and observed. In the experiment, the researchers were able to view the outcome of individual processes and observe a new process where two atoms leave the experiment together.

Working at this molecular level allows scientists to know more about how atoms collide and react with one another, and they believe the development of the technique may provide a way to build and control single molecules of particular chemicals. The team also believes that applications of the science they've developed could be useful for future quantum technologies that could impact society is much as earlier quantum technologies. The earlier quantum technologies the researchers are speaking of enabled modern computers and the Internet.

One observation from the experiment showed that it took longer than expected to form a molecule compared with other experiments and theoretical calculations, which the team notes are currently insufficient to explain the phenomena. Scientists on the project have suggested mechanisms that could potentially explain the discrepancy, but a say it highlights the need for future theoretical developments in the area of experimental quantum mechanics.