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'Vortex Lattices' May Help Explain Material Defects

Photonics.com
Dec 2006
BOULDER, Colo., Dec. 27, 2006 -- By superimposing a rotating pattern of intersecting laser beams on a spinning cloud of ultracold atoms in a thin gas, scientists have created a new technique that could be used to simulate why and how defects arise in superconductors, which are important materials that are difficult to study directly.

By combining two cutting-edge laboratory creations -- optical lattices and atoms in a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) spinning in a trap like planets orbiting the sun -- physicists at JILA have developed a method of visualizing defects, or disruptions, in rotating patterns. The experiments create the equivalent of "tornadoes in valleys," said group leader Eric Cornell, a Fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). JILA is a joint institute of NIST and the University of Colorado at Boulder.VortexLattices.jpg
This set of JILA images shows a rotating Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) "pinned" to a rotating lattice created with lasers as the shape of the combined "vortex lattice" evolves from triangular (top) to square (bottom). The images on the left show the BEC vortex lattice at low, medium and high pinning strengths, or optical intensity levels (top to bottom). The corresponding images on the right are computer processed to reveal the structural relationship between the BEC vortex and optical lattice, with red indicating the symmetry of the physical structures (hexagonal/triangular or square). (Images: Cornell group/JILA)
A BEC is a unique form of matter, first created by Cornell and colleague Carl Wieman at JILA, in which atoms are chilled to near absolute zero, and a point at which, by the rules of quantum physics, they condense into an amorphous "superatom" in which the individual atoms are indistinguishable.

Part of the scientific fascination with BECs is that they share important physical characteristics with seemingly quite different phenomena, such as low-energy paired electrons in superconductors or the "superfluid" helium-4 that flows uphill with zero viscosity. For instance, helium-4, when stirred, doesn't circulate around the container like water in a glass, but rather breaks into an orderly array of quantized vortices, or little tornadoes. BECs behave the same way.

The JILA experiments were performed with 3 million rubidium atoms held in a magnetic trap. A superfluid of vortices was created by spinning the trap. The reddish BEC cloud, about 100 µm in diameter, contained about 100 hollow vortices, like a spinning bundle of fibers. Lasers were used to set up optical lattices -- grids of light in an arrangement of energy peaks and troughs -- in triangular and square patterns and focus them onto the BEC.

The overlapping lattice and vortices, under certain conditions such as when spinning at about the same rates, tend to lock together. The energy peaks of the lattice "pin" the BEC at those spots by reducing the density of the superfluid flowing around the local vortex. The JILA group visualized the structure or repeating patterns of the pinned vortex lattice by taking pictures over time, and then using an image processing technique to show how the vortex lattice structure and orientation were related to the optical lattice structure and orientation. The vortex lattice and peak optical signals evolve into different shapes at various laser intensities and spinning rates. Because BECs and optical lattices can be precisely controlled, the technique may be useful in studying more mysterious patterned superfluids, such as superconductors.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation and NIST and is reported in a paper published online Dec. 12 by the journal Physical Review Letters. For more information, visit: www.nist.gov


GLOSSARY
bose-einstein condensate
A group of atoms that have been cooled to the point that they have minimum motion and share the same, lowest possible quantum state.
lattice
A regular spatial display of points representing, for example, the sites of atoms in a crystal.
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
superconductor
A metal, alloy or compound that loses its electrical resistance at temperatures below a certain transition temperature referred to as Tc. High-temperature superconductors occur near 130 K, while low-temperature superconductors have Tc in the range of 4 to 18 K.
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