In a Ground-Breaking First, Physicists Manage to Hold Individual Atoms

This is a huge step in quantum physics.
Fabienne Lang
Laser-cooled atom cloud seen through a micriscopeUniversity of Otago

It's a big moment for quantum physics. A team of physicists from the University of Otago, in New Zealand, has managed to grab individual atoms and observe their unseen atomic interactions. 

This is a first in the world of physics and could have a huge impact on future quantum technologies, something that could be integral to our society's future.

Their findings were published in Physical Review Letters on Tuesday.


An armful of equipment

In order to hold an individual, microscopic moving atom down the physicists had to use quite a bit of equipment. There were lasers, mirrors, a vacuum chamber, as well as microscopes, not to mention time, energy, patience, and expertise. 

Up until now, atoms have only ever been observed in numbers. This experiment offers a previously unseen view of the microscopic world of atoms.

In a Ground-Breaking First, Physicists Manage to Hold Individual Atoms
Mikkel Andersen (left) and Marvin Weyland (right) in the physics lab, Source: University of Otago

"Our method involves the individual trapping and cooling of three atoms to a temperature of about a millionth of a Kelvin using highly focused laser beams in a hyper-evacuated (vacuum) chamber, around the size of a toaster. We slowly combine the traps containing the atoms to produce controlled interactions that we measure," said Associate Professor Mikkel F. Andersen of Otago’s Department of Physics.

Postdoctoral Researcher Marvin Weyland continued "By working at this molecular level, we now know more about how atoms collide and react with one another. With development, this technique could provide a way to build and control single molecules of particular chemicals."

The two physicists believe that their research will be useful in the future development of quantum technologies, impacting them as much as earlier quantum technologies, which brought about modern computers and the Internet. 

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As Andersen said "Research on being able to build on a smaller and smaller scale has powered much of the technological development over the past decades. For example, it is the sole reason that today's cellphones have more computing power than the supercomputers of the 1980s."

He finished by saying "Our research tries to pave the way for being able to build at the very smallest scale possible, namely the atomic scale, and I am thrilled to see how our discoveries will influence technological advancements in the future."


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