Physicists grab individual atoms in groundbreaking experiment

LASER-cooled atom cloud viewed through microscope camera. Credit: University of Otago

In a first for quantum physics, University of Otago researchers have “held” individual atoms in place and observed previously unseen complex atomic interactions.

The team has investigated this quantum process, which until now was only understood through statistical averaging from experiments involving large numbers of atoms.

Their 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.

The researchers were able to see the exact outcome of individual processes, and observed a new process where two of the atoms leave the experiment together. Until now, this level of detail has been impossible to observe in experiments with many atoms.

The paper has been published in Physical Review Letters.

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