Trapping atoms, not space ships, with tractor beams

October 30, 2018 by Robyn Mills, University of Adelaide
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

University of Adelaide researchers have delved into the realm of Star Trek and created a powerful tractor beam – or light-driven energy trap – for atoms.

Rather than sucking space-ships into a space-station, this pulls atoms into a microscopic hole at the centre of a special optical fibre. It is opening the way for new quantum experiments that may lead to new secure communications or advanced sensing technologies.

Published in the journal Physical Review Applied, the researchers from the University's Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) say this is the first time that scientists have been able to demonstrate a highly efficient 'waveguide trap'.

The Ph.D. student who developed the technology, Ashby Hilton, says: "Although beams are green or blue in the movies, in this case the trap is made of invisible infra-red . The beam grabs hold of atoms that are floating in a chamber that is almost completely emptied of gas – a little sample of outer space on Earth.

"Every atom that enters the tractor beam is pulled into the fibre – there is no escape. And once sucked into the interior of the optical fibre the atoms can be held for long periods of time. Our experiments show that we can very precisely control light to produce exactly the right conditions to control atoms."

The tractor beam works by the infra-red light interacting with the atoms to create a change in energy which drives the atoms to the most intense part of the .

Lead researcher Dr. Philip Light says: "What is really exciting is that now we have the possibility to do quantum experiments on these trapped atoms. Our first experiments intend to use these stored atoms as elements of a quantum memory. We hope that our work may eventually form part of absolutely channel that is of obvious high interest to defence, intelligence and industry."

The researchers are now moving onto the next stage in which the tractor beam is formed from a hollow cone of light rather than a solid of light. In this new configuration the atoms will be held at the centre of the light cone where it is perfectly dark.

"This is an extremely powerful idea – we can move and manipulate the atoms, but are able to shield the atoms from the disruptive effect of intense light," says Dr. Light. The researchers have essentially created a quantum funnel which allows them to guide and trap atoms for longer without disrupting their delicate quantum state.

IPAS Director Professor Andre Luiten says: "Our researchers are manipulating and measuring individual and molecules to sense the world around us. This new era of sensing is opening up diverse new possibilities from attempting to detect disease through finding particular molecules in the breath, to assisting miners and defence by detecting anomalous magnetic fields associated with mineral deposits or covert submarine activity."

A video demonstrating the waveguide trap can be seen here.

Explore further: Building 3-D atomic structures atom by atom using lasers

More information: A.P. Hilton et al. High-efficiency cold-atom transport into a waveguide trap, Physical Review Applied (2018). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevApplied.10.044034

Related Stories

Building 3-D atomic structures atom by atom using lasers

September 6, 2018

A team of researchers at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France has developed a technique for arranging cold atoms into useful 3-D arrayed structures. In their paper published in the journal Nature, ...

Scientists make quantum breakthrough

April 20, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have demonstrated for the first time that atoms can be guided in a laser beam and possess the same properties as light guided in an optical communications fiber.

Trapping single atoms in a uniform fashion

September 28, 2016

Single neutral atoms trapped individually in optical microtraps are incredibly useful tools for studying quantum physics, as the atoms then exist in complete isolation from the environment. Arrays of optical microtraps containing ...

Recommended for you

Reducing the impact forces of water entry

November 20, 2018

When professional divers jump from a springboard, their hands are perpendicular to the water, with wrists pointed upward, as they continue toward their plunge at 30 mph.

Tiny lasers light up immune cells

November 20, 2018

A team of researchers from the School of Physics at the University of St Andrews have developed tiny lasers that could revolutionise our understanding and treatment of many diseases, including cancer.

0 comments

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.