Continuing the recent spate of announcements concerning new scientific instruments, researchers at Harvard University have developed a quantum gas microscope that can glimpse into the quantum mechanics world, for example the behavior of supercold rubidium atoms. The what, you say? Well, rubidium is one of the more esoteric elements (Rb – atomic number 37) that for experimental purposes has electropositive characteristics useful for study at very low temperatures. How low? Five billionths of a degree above absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius). At that super-low temperature, the atoms cease to behave ‘normally’ and begin to exhibit the quirky characteristics (from the human perspective) of quantum mechanics. Superconductivity, the ability to conduct electricity without resistance, is one of those behaviors.
“Ultracold atoms in optical lattices can be used as a model to help understand the physics behind superconductivity or quantum magnetism, for example,” says senior author 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.”
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.
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.