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Otago team gain control over single atoms

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 8/03/2017

Otago University physicists have found a way to control single atoms, using some "Kiwi ingenuity" along the way.

Lead researcher Dr Mikkel Andersen says the team's results could help in the development of a range of technologies, including incredibly fast quantum computers for calculations of extreme complexity.

"Time will tell what the applications will be," he said.

"It is likely the main applications will be in technologies we have not yet thought about."

The six-strong team used seven lasers, with components from compact disc players, and precision mirrors to achieve their feat.

They worked in an air-conditioned laboratory from which as many kinds of "noise" that could affect the equipment and results had been minimised or eliminated.

Dr Andersen said laser light was the key to the experiment, the results of which are set to appear in the journal Physical Review A, Rapid Communications.

"We cool the atoms, hold them, change how they affect each other and make them visible by shining laser light, with different frequency and intensity, on them," he said.

"We make repeated use of the phenomenal degree of control one can have over the frequency of laser light, which is a truly astounding feature of lasers."

Dr Andersen said the "Kiwi ingenuity" was how the team overcame not having a low-noise laboratory, usually considered a necessity for such experiments.

The tables on which the experiment had been built floated on air, which was one way of keeping down the "noise".

Dropping the temperature of the atom to almost absolute zero (minus 273C) eliminated its "random wobbling", allowing it to reach a quantum state with high purity.

"This represents the ultimate control over individual atoms," Dr Andersen said.

"We are pushing the boundaries for the level of control that scientists can have over microscopic systems."

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