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Atom laser puts NZ at front of quantum physics

Atom laser puts New Zealand at forefront of quantum physics research

A group of Otago University physicists led by Dr Andrew C. Wilson has been awarded a grant from the competitive Marsden Fund to continue their landmark work on a mysterious fifth state of matter known as Bose-Einstein condensate, at laboratory temperatures a billion times lower than deep space.

Dr Wilson’s work on laser cooling of atoms has helped make New Zealand a leading player in this new and rapidly expanding field. His group has a state-of-the-art atom cooling and condensing apparatus, and world-class theoretical and experimental physics expertise.

By cooling atoms at close to zero temperatures, Dr Wilson and his group succeeded in 1998 in reproducing a bizarre and only recently discovered state of matter known as Bose-Einstein condensate. Creation of this long-hypothesised super-atom is being hailed worldwide as the dawn of a new era of atomic physics.

Dr Wilson’s research group includes Professor Wes Sandle and Dr Jocelyn Martin from the university’s physics department. Mr Jan Arlt from Oxford University is also assisting.

According to quantum mechanics, a chunk of matter ripples through space like a light wave. In the 1960s, light waves were induced to cooperate and form a laser beam, which has proved immensely useful. In a gas of atoms the ripples are normally very confused, and cooperation between atom waves is far more difficult to achieve. By the 1990s, atoms in an ultra-low temperature gas were induced to cooperate (or 'condense'), creating a completely new state of matter, known as Bose-Einstein condensate. Enormous progress has followed, and atom lasers have been created.

Atom lasers are also bright pencil beams of coherent waves, as different from ordinary matter as a laser is different from a candle. Their study will help the engineering of smaller and faster integrated circuits and will improve interferometers and frequency standards. Dr Wilson’s group plans to study how to grow the coherent atomic beam from the normal atom gas. Along with exploring how best to get the coherent waves out of their birthplace and injected into applications, it will look at how to make and mix whirlpools in a superfluid atom condensate.

The award is worth $230,000 for the first year, rising to $243,000 for the second and third years.

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