First Bose-Einstein Condensate Produced with Calcium Atoms
|The waves, which describe the atoms quantum mechanically, all oscillate synchronously in the condensate and accumulate to form a dense giant wave. In this way, the microscopic pile-up of atoms suddenly becomes macroscopic and, therefore, visible.|
Physicists have succeeded for the first time in producing a Bose-Einstein condensate from the alkaline earth element calcium. The use of alkaline earth atoms creates new potential for precision measurements, such as for the determination of gravitational fields. This is because, as opposed to previous Bose-Einstein condensates from alkali atoms, alkaline earth metals have one million times more narrow optical transitions — a fact which can be used for super-exact measurements.
Atoms in gases at room temperature behave like a wild bunch: They fly pell-mell at different speeds, collide with one another, and are then hurled again in another direction. However, at extremely low temperatures close to the absolute zero point at zero Kelvin (-273.15 degrees Celsius), they nearly come to a standstill. At this point, the laws of quantum mechanics come into effect. The idea of atoms as small spheres does not work any longer. In fact, atoms can now only be described quantum mechanically by waves. Like water waves, they can overlap each other.
Physicist and Nobel Prize winner Wolfgang Ketterle once described it as an “identity crisis” of atoms: If atoms are caught in a trap and cooled to a temperature close to the absolute zero point, they condense — similar to the process of vapor condensing into water — and take on an all-new condition. The atoms become indistinguishable. This collective condition, whicn is named for its intellectual fathers, is called Bose-Einstein condensate.
In the case of a Bose-Einstein condensate, the wave functions of up to one million atoms are so synchronised that they pile up to form a giant wave. These formations can grow to one millimeter in size, and they can then be photographed. The microcosm presents itself macroscopically — it becomes visible for the observer.
In the past few years, such Bose-Einstein condensates have been used for diverse investigations on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, such as a model system for solids or in quantum information. The wave patterns of excited Bose-Einstein condensates are very responsive to their environment. Thus, by investigating these patterns it is possible to produce highly responsive interferometric sensors, e.g. for magnetic fields and also for gravitation.
Physicists at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), who also are members of the Excellence Cluster QUEST of the Leibniz University Hannover, have produced a Bose-Einstein condensate from alkaline earth atoms. To this end, 2 • 106 calcium atoms precooled in a magneto-optical trap were loaded at a temperature of 20µK into optical forceps. Due to the weakening of the holding force, hot atoms vaporize, whereby the remaining atoms are cooled. At a temperature of typically 200 nK, the critical temperature is reached with 105 atoms. Of these, approximately 2 • 104 atoms can be cooled to form a pure condensate.
Like a giant wave in the midst of a sea of gaseous calcium atoms, the Bose-Einstein condensate soars. It is composed of approximately 2,000 atoms which are normally not visible to the human eye. However, the waves that describe the atoms quantum mechanically all oscillate synchronously in the condensate and accumulate to form a dense giant wave. In this way, the microscopic pile-up of atoms suddenly becomes macroscopic.
Light is used for the manipulation and excitation of condensates. All Bose-Einstein condensates produced so far have had a common disadvantage: Their broad optical transitions do not allow any precision excitations. In the case of Bose-Einstein condensates from alkaline earth atoms (e.g. calcium and strontium, both of which are being investigated at PTB as to their suitability as optical clocks) their super-narrow optical transitions offer novel potential for precision investigations. Their use on satellites is conceivable, e.g. by geophysicists, who study the deformation of the Earth and, thus, the change in gravitation.
The research was supported by the Excellence Cluster QUEST (Centre for Quantum Engineering and Space-Time Research). The results have been published in Physical Review Letters.