Scientists close to fabricating a practical atom laser

July 14th, 2008 - 12:19 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, July 14 (IANS) Scientists are on the verge of fabricating the first practical atom laser that holds the promise of ever more precise measurement in industry, medical science, navigation and mining. The breakthrough has been made possible by overcoming a host of theoretical and technical hurdles, allowing for the laser’s continuous operation unlike previous versions that drained the source material and switched off.

The problem of the early atom lasers arose out of the delicate nature of the Bose-Einstein condensate that fuelled them, because they existed at near absolute zero temperatures and could be produced only in spurts.

But now scientists have discovered how to refuel this condensate — or quantum foam.

“(This) potentially allows continuous operation of the atom laser,” said Nick Robins of the Australian National University and member of the team working on the project.

The team discovered how to persuade “quantum foam” to produce a beam of matter waves just as lasers produce an intense light beam.

“Our work paves the way for a potentially unlimited source of ultra-high brightness atoms. It’s like going from a trickle of atoms leaking from a thimble to turning on an atom tap,” said Robins.

The atom laser offers the possibility of measurement of magnetic fields, electric fields, gravitational fields, rotations and accelerations with a sensitivity undreamt of a few years ago.

Applications can be expected in medical research, mineral exploration, and navigation both on earth and in space.

“We all march to the beat of precision measurement. Modern atomic clocks, for example, lose or gain about one second in one hundred-million years and are at the heart of GPS navigation,” said Robins.

Normally atoms behave like microscopic billiard balls, bouncing around, independently of one another. However, in an atom laser they are made to behave like waves, flowing and moving together in a highly organised, or coherent, way.

Details about the discovery have been published in the latest edition of the journal Nature Physics.

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