Stopping atoms

Oct 03, 2007

With atoms and molecules in a gas moving at thousands of kilometres per hour, physicists have long sought a way to slow them down to a few kilometres per hour to trap them.

A paper, published today in the Institute of Physics’ New Journal of Physics, demonstrates how a group of physicists from The University of Texas at Austin, US, have found a way to slow down, stop and explore a much wider range of atoms than ever before.

Inspired by the coilgun that was developed by the University’s Center for Electromechanics, the group has developed an "atomic coilgun" that slows and gradually stops atoms with a sequence of pulsed magnetic fields.

Dr. Mark Raizen and his colleagues in Texas ultimately plan on using the gun to trap atomic hydrogen, which he said has been the Rosetta Stone of physics for many years and is the simplest and most abundant atom in the periodic table.

Work on slowing and stopping atoms has been at the forefront of advancement in physics for some time. In 1997, there were three joint-winners for the Nobel Prize in Physics for their combined contribution to laser cooling - a method using laser light to cool gases and keep atoms floating or captured in "atom traps".

These important advances had limited use because they only applied to atoms with 'closed two-level transition', excluding important elements such as hydrogen, iron, nickel and cobalt. In contrast, nearly all elements and a wide range of molecules are affected by magnetic forces, or are paramagnetic, which means that this latest research has much wider applicability.

Professor Raizen said, "Of particular importance are the doors being opened for our understanding of hydrogen. Precision spectroscopy of hydrogen's isotopes, deuterium and tritium, continues to be of great interest to both atomic and nuclear physics. Further study of tritium, as the simplest radioactive element, also serves as an ideal system for the study of Beta decay. "

Having successfully designed and used an 18-coil device to slow a supersonic beam of metastable neon atoms, the team is now developing a 64-stage device to further slow and stop atoms.

Source: Institute of Physics

Explore further: Clues to inner atomic life from subtle light-emission shifts

Related Stories

Why we need to keep adding leap seconds

6 hours ago

Today at precisely 10am Australian Eastern Standard time, something chronologically peculiar will take place: there'll be an extra second between 09:59:59 and 10:00:00.

Monitoring volcanoes with ground-based atomic clocks

Jun 30, 2015

An international team led by scientists from the University of Zurich finds that high-precision atomic clocks can be used to monitor volcanoes and potentially improve predictions of future eruptions. In addition, a ground-based ...

Researchers align atomic friction experiment

Jun 24, 2015

Working together to study friction on the atomic scale, researchers at UC Merced and the University of Pennsylvania have conducted the first atomic-scale experiments and simulations of friction at overlapping ...

The protein problem

Jun 17, 2015

The importance of proteins is difficult to overstate; they play a critical role in countless biological processes. An enhanced understanding of their structure and function is essential to advancing the state ...

Recommended for you

Restoration of NIST's million-pound deadweight machine

3 hours ago

Restoration is well underway for NIST's 4.45-million newton (equivalent to one million pounds-force) deadweight machine, the largest in the world. The three-story-tall deadweight, comprising a stack of stainless ...

The cosmic start of lightning

6 hours ago

Even though lightning is a common phenomenon, the exact mechanism triggering a lightning discharge remains elusive. Scientists at the Dutch national research institute for mathematics CWI, the University ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.