[ASC-media] Turning on the atom laser

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Sat Jul 12 03:39:44 CEST 2008


Turning on the atom laser


Nature embargo 9 am AEST Saturday 12 July 2008


The first practical atom laser is a step closer today thanks to
Australian researchers. 

The researchers have shown how to refuel the laser with 'quantum foam'
allowing continuous operation. The results, reported today in Nature
Physics, hold great promise for precision measurement in navigation,
industry and mining and for fundamental tests of quantum mechanics.

Ten years ago the first atom laser brought its US inventers a Nobel
prize. They discovered how to persuade 'quantum foam' (more properly
known as Bose-Einstein condensate) to produce a beam of matter waves
just as lasers produce an intense light beam. 

Scientists hope to use this 'atom laser' as the basis for a swathe of
new devices, some offering staggering improvements in measurement
sensitivity.

However, until now there has been a problem: the atom laser quickly
drained the source material, and the device switched off. Such
short-term operation is fine for fundamental research, but for
applications it's a dead end. 

"We discovered how to refuel the material, potentially allowing
continuous operation of the atom laser," says lead author, Nick Robins
from the Australian National University.

"We had to overcome a series of theoretical and technical hurdles,
mainly related to the delicate nature of the Bose-Einstein condensate.
It only exists at near absolute zero and is hard to maintain." 

"Our work paves the way for a potentially unlimited source of ultra-high
brightness atoms. It's like going from a trickle of atoms leaking from a
thimble to turning on an atom tap," says Nick. 

The atom laser offers the possibility of measurement of magnetic fields,
electric fields, gravitational fields, rotations and accelerations with
a sensitivity undreamt of a few years ago. Applications can be expected
in medical research, mineral exploration, and navigation both on earth
and in space.

"We all march to the beat of precision measurement. Modern atomic
clocks, for example, lose or gain about one second in one
hundred-million years and are at the heart of GPS navigation," says
Nick. 

"Our ability to precisely measure length has allowed us to produce ever
smaller and faster electronics that form the basis of our mobile phones,
our computers and the internet. Precision measurement is at the heart of
our technology driven society."

John Close, an ANU co-author on the paper says "Our job right now is to
compare devices made with an atom laser to the current cutting edge of
measurement technology and really answer the question: how much better
are these devices? That's the next big step, and the one that industry
and government are waiting for."

An 'atom laser' is essentially an ultra-bright beam of atoms.  Normally
atoms behave like microscopic billiard balls, bouncing around,
independently of one another.  However, in an atom laser they are made
to behave like waves, flowing and moving together in a highly organised,
or coherent, way.  The difference between an atom laser and normal atoms
is analogous to the difference between an optical laser and a light
bulb.  

Nick Robins is one of 16 early-career scientists chosen for Fresh
Science 2008, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian
governments.

Media contacts: Professor John Close on 0450 576 913, 02 6125 4390,
John.Close at anu.edu.au <mailto:John.Close at anu.edu.au> ; and Niall Byrne
on 03 9398 1416 or niall at freshscience.org
<mailto:niall at freshscience.org> .

The lead author Nick Robins is travelling and only contactable by email:
nick.robins at anu.edu.au.

Photos and background at www.freshscience.org 

 

 

_______________

 

Niall Byrne

Science in Public

 

ph +61 (3) 9398 1416 or 0417 131 977

niall at scienceinpublic.com.au <mailto:niall at scienceinpublic.com.au> 

Full contact details at www.scienceinpublic.com
<http://www.scienceinpublic.com> 

 

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