First evidence of 'quantum superchemistry' observed in lab

“This has been a scientific goal for 20 years, so it’s a very exciting era.”
Mrigakshi Dixit
study co-authors Zhendong Zhang (at left) and Prof. Cheng Chin in the laboratory.
study co-authors Zhendong Zhang (at left) and Prof. Cheng Chin in the laboratory.

John Zich 

In a significant advance, scientists have obtained the first proof of a phenomenon known as "quantum superchemistry." 

This effect was previously predicted but never actually observed in the laboratory. 

The University of Chicago researchers that led this experiment characterize quantum superchemistry as a "phenomenon where particles in the same quantum state undergo collectively accelerated reactions."

The findings could be useful in developing a variety of sophisticated technologies, including quantum computing.

“This has been a scientific goal for 20 years, so it’s a very exciting era,” said Cheng Chin, a professor of physics and member of the James Franck Institute and Enrico Fermi Institute, in an official release. 

The superchemistry experiment 

The experiment is based on the concept called Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a state of matter formed when extremely cold atoms clump together and behave like a single large atom.

It was previously proposed that enticing these atoms in this quantum state through chemical reactions would cause them to "display unusual abilities and behaviors."

In their lab experiment, the researchers cooled simple cesium atoms to incredibly low temperatures and coaxed them into the quantum state. The researchers then used a magnetic field to create a chemical reaction that converted them into molecules. The scientists closely studied the process dynamics and how the molecules behaved.

And indeed, the atoms appeared to be building molecules in a manner reminiscent of superchemistry.

Individual atoms would clash in regular chemistry, and each collision has a chance of becoming a molecule. However, quantum physics predicts that atoms in a quantum state will operate collectively rather than individually.

“You are no longer treating a chemical reaction as a collision between independent particles, but as a collective process. All of them are reacting together, as a whole,” explained Chin. 

This quantum-enhanced chemical reaction could pave the way for the development of new technologies in quantum chemistry and quantum computing, as well as understanding the laws of physics and the universe. 

Up next, the team aims to examine superchemistry with complex molecules.

The results have been reported in the journal Nature Physics. 

Study abstract:

Chemical reactions in the quantum degenerate regime are described by the mixing of matter-wave fields. In many-body reactions involving bosonic reactants and products, such as coupled atomic and molecular Bose–Einstein condensates, quantum coherence and bosonic enhancement are key features of the reaction dynamics. However, the observation of these many-body phenomena, also known as ‘superchemistry’, has been elusive so far. Here we report the observation of coherent and collective reactive coupling between Bose-condensed atoms and molecules near a Feshbach resonance. Starting from an atomic condensate, the reaction begins with the rapid formation of molecules, followed by oscillations of their populations during the equilibration process. We observe faster oscillations in samples with higher densities, indicating bosonic enhancement. We present a quantum field model that captures the dynamics well and allows us to identify three-body recombination as the dominant reaction process. Our findings deepen our understanding of quantum many-body chemistry and offer insights into the control of chemical reactions at quantum degeneracy.

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