Physicists at Harvard University have realized a new way to cool synthetic materials by employing a quantum algorithm to remove excess energy. The research, published this week in the journal Nature, is the first application of such an “algorithmic cooling” technique to ultra-cold atomic gases, opening new possibilities from materials science to quantum computation.
“Ultracold atoms are the coldest objects in the known universe,” explains senior author Markus Greiner, associate professor of Physics at Harvard. “Their temperature is only a billionth of a degree above absolute zero temperature, but we will need to make them even colder if we are to harness their unique properties to learn about quantum mechanics.”
Greiner and his colleagues study quantum many-body physics, the exotic and complex behaviors that result when simple quantum particles interact. It is these behaviors which give rise to high-temperature superconductivity and quantum magnetism, and that many physicists hope to employ in quantum computers.
“We simulate real-world materials by building synthetic counterparts composed of ultra-cold atoms trapped in laser lattices,” says co-author Waseem Bakr, a graduate student in physics at Harvard. “This approach enables us to image and manipulate the individual particles in a way that has not been possible in real materials.”
Quantum effect requires mega cold
The catch is that observing the quantum mechanical effects that Greiner, Bakr and colleagues seek requires extreme temperatures.
“One typically thinks of the quantum world as being small,” says Bakr, ” but the truth is that many bizarre features of quantum mechanics, like entanglement, are equally dependent upon extreme cold.”
The hotter an object is, the more its constituent particles move around, obscuring the quantum world much as a shaken camera blurs a photograph.
The push to ever-lower temperatures is driven by techniques like “laser cooling” and “evaporative cooling,” which are approaching their limits at nanoKelvin temperatures. In a proof-of-principle experiment, the Harvard team has demonstrated that they can actively remove the fluctuations which constitute temperature, rather than merely waiting for hot particles to leave as in evaporative cooling.
Akin to preparing precisely one egg per dimple in a carton, this “orbital excitation blockade” process removes excess atoms from a crystal until there is precisely one atom per site.
“The collective behaviors of atoms at these temperatures remain an important open question, and the breathtaking control we now exert over individual atoms will be a powerful tool for answering it,” said Greiner. “We are glimpsing a mysterious and wonderful world that has never been seen in this way before.”