University of Amsterdam/Scixel
- Scientists have turned a special phase of matter into a ‘matter’ laserthat can take forever.
- It is a Bose-Einstein condensatea cloud of linked particles that work together.
- The researchers feed new atoms into the laser using a purpose-built system.
In new research, scientists reveal a special laser made with a Bose-Einstein condensate that can work forever. The secret is to manipulate the atoms themselves to behave like trapped waves, a principle underlying: quantum mechanics† A team of physicists from the University of Amsterdam, most of them from the Van der Waals-Zeeman Institute, conducted this research into the nature and duration of atomic lasers. She published their findings on June 8 in the journal Nature†
A Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) is a special phase of matter in which the atoms fuse into a homogeneous turbid mass that acts as one body. Researchers have to treat the atoms specially, both to get into BEC state and to stay there, but matter has special properties at this stage. Usually, BECs are induced by taking very scarce gases and cooling them, further reducing their interactive properties. It is at this point that the branches between atoms begin to express themselves on a macroscopic level. This is how the BEC is formed.
Technically, classical lasers use light energy instead of so-called “matter.” A matter laser would unlock applications that a traditional laser just isn’t good for, just as the traditional laser itself was an improvement over mere light; everything repeats itself in the sciences. And while until now there was only a pulsed BEC laser, scientists on this project point out that that too was a waypoint on the way to a continuous traditional laser. And now they say they broke the barrier to a continuous matter laser.
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But how? It takes a lot of energy and maintenance to keep a BEC in that state. First, the BEC must remain nearly “supercooled,” meaning it must be reduced to freezing without becoming a solid; and second, it must be replenished with new atoms to replace the atoms that form into molecules and fall out of the cloud. It is common to use lasers to slow the atoms to the supercooled range, but light itself is risky to the BEC cloud. This has been one of the obstacles to bringing BECs to market or to widespread use – they consume a lot of energy and resources. Or are they?
“Here we demonstrate the creation of a [continuous wave Bose-Einstein condensate] that could last indefinitely,” the team writes in their newspaper† “Our experiment includes ingredients, gain and continuous supply. The center of the experiment consists of a large ‘reservoir’ that is continuously charged with [strontium] atoms and it contains a small and deep ‘dimple’ trap in which the BEC is created. The gas in the reservoir is continuously laser-cooled and exchanges atoms and heat with the dimple.”
Their clever design, which uses a larger space and a second laser, allows the atoms to sift around and cool, replenishing themselves in a more natural process. This keeps the supply of atoms almost constant and keeps the BEC laser spinning. The pulsing of the past has finally become continuous.
“This proof-of-principle demonstration provides a new, hitherto missing piece of atomic optics, enabling the construction of continuous coherent matter wave devices,” the team concludes. In other words . † † Let’s do this.
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