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  • Atom Imaged in Ultracold Gas
Nov 2009
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 5, 2009 – A high-resolution microscope has been developed to image individual atoms in an ultracold quantum gas, marking the first time scientists have detected single atoms in a crystalline structure made solely of light, called a Bose Hubbard optical lattice.

Physicists at Harvard University created the microscope as part of efforts to use ultracold quantum gases to understand and develop novel quantum materials.

“Ultracold atoms in optical lattices can be used as a model to help understand the physics behind superconductivity or quantum magnetism, for example,” said Markus Greiner, an assistant professor of physics at Harvard and an affiliate of the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms. “We expect that our technique, which bridges the gap between earlier microscopic and macroscopic approaches to the study of quantum systems, will help in quantum simulations of condensed matter systems, and also find applications in quantum information processing.”

Sketch of a quantum gas microscope that images individual ultracold atoms in an optical lattice. It’s part of scientists’ efforts to use ultracold quantum gases to understand and develop novel quantum materials. (Image: Markus Greiner/Harvard University)

The quantum gas microscope developed by Greiner and his colleagues is a high-resolution device capable of viewing single atoms – in this case, atoms of rubidium – occupying individual, closely spaced lattice sites. The rubidium atoms are cooled to just 5 billionths of a degree above absolute zero (–273 °C).

Greiner and colleagues describe the new microscope this week in the journal Nature.

“At such low temperatures, atoms follow the rules of quantum mechanics, causing them to behave in very unexpected ways,” said first author Waseem S. Bakr, a graduate student in Harvard’s department of physics. “Quantum mechanics allows atoms to quickly tunnel around within the lattice, move around with no resistance, and even be ‘delocalized’ over the entire lattice. With our microscope we can individually observe tens of thousands of atoms working together to perform these amazing feats.”

In their paper, Bakr, Greiner, and colleagues present images of single rubidium atoms confined to an optical lattice created through projections of a laser-generated holographic pattern. The neighboring rubidium atoms are just 640 nm apart, allowing them to quickly tunnel their way through the lattice.

Confining a quantum gas – such as a Bose-Einstein condensate – in such an optically generated lattice creates a system that can be used to model complex phenomena in condensed matter physics, such as superfluidity. Until now, only the bulk properties of such systems could be studied, but the new microscope’s ability to detect arrays of thousands of single atoms gives scientists what amounts to a new workshop for tinkering with the fundamental properties of matter, making it possible to study these simulated systems in much more detail, and possibly also forming the basis of a single-site readout system for quantum computation.

“There are many unsolved questions regarding quantum materials, such as high-temperature superconductors that lose all electrical resistance if they are cooled to moderate temperatures,” Greiner said. “We hope this ultracold atom model system can provide answers to some of these important questions, paving the way for creating novel quantum materials with as-yet unknown properties.”

Greiner’s and Bakr’s co-authors on the Nature paper are Jonathon I. Gillen, Amy Peng, and Simon Foelling, all of Harvard’s department of physics and the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms. Their work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Research Office, DARPA and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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A regular spatial display of points representing, for example, the sites of atoms in a crystal.
Sizable enough to be perceived by the unaided eye.
An instrument consisting essentially of a tube 160 mm long, with an objective lens at the distant end and an eyepiece at the near end. The objective forms a real aerial image of the object in the focal plane of the eyepiece where it is observed by the eye. The overall magnifying power is equal to the linear magnification of the objective multiplied by the magnifying power of the eyepiece. The eyepiece can be replaced by a film to photograph the primary image, or a positive or negative relay...
Characteristic of an object so small in size or so fine in structure that it cannot be seen by the unaided eye. A microscopic object may be rendered visible when examined under a microscope.
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...
quantum mechanics
The science of all complex elements of atomic and molecular spectra, and the interaction of radiation and matter.
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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