Atom by atom, scientists learning to build a new technology

Mikkel Andersen
Mikkel Andersen
Dunedin physicists have opened up new research and technology opportunities by bringing two individual atoms close together through laser control.

In a study just published in Nature Communications, researchers put one atom inside each of two laser beams, and moved them together until they started interacting.

This was the first time this ''pure test of the basic interaction'' had been shown in a lab using two single atoms, study co-author Mikkel Andersen, of the University of Otago physics department, said.

Previous experiments had been based on multiple atoms, which could result in undesirable outcomes, including chemical reactions between the atoms.

Associate Prof Andersen said that, a decade ago, he would never have dreamed of working with a single atom and a single photon, basic units of matter and light, in a laboratory.

''It's extremely cool to be really working at that level, at the basic level of both light and matter, and yet to control that.''

Bringing the two rubidium-85 atoms close together allowed the atoms to exchange properties in a way which could be ''very useful'' for future quantum technologies.

''We were certainly very excited when we first knew the results.''

''Our work represents an important step in our capability to control the atomic world,'' he says.

''Assembling small physical systems atom by atom, in a controlled way, opens up a wealth of research directions and opportunities that are not otherwise possible.''

One of the benefits of the new approach was a more robust form of quantum entanglement, a feature of the quantum world in which ''entangled'' particles remained connected, even over great distances.

Making more robust entanglement technology was important and New Zealand was ''right at the forefront of this research''.

Lasers, which had made the internet possible, were linked with the first quantum technology revolution last century, and major benefits would flow from a second revolution, which would result once quantum entanglement could be exploited, he said.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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