Physicist creates the fifth state of matter from their living room

A physicist in the UK has created the fifth state of matter from her living room during the coronavirus lockdown using quantum technology.

Dr Amruta Gadge from the University of Sussex created a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) – a state of matter where extremely cold atoms clump together and act as if they were a single entity.

Despite working from her living room two miles away from the lab, Dr Gadge was able to use her computer to control lasers and radio waves and create the BEC.

Researchers at the university’s quantum department think it’s the first time someone has established a BEC remotely in a lab that didn’t previously have one.

The achievement could provide a blueprint for using a computer to operate quantum technology remotely in inaccessible environments such as space or underwater.

Quantum technology makes use of the spooky effects of quantum physics to vastly speed up information processing, which could lead to the most powerful computer on Earth.

Dr Amruta Gadge working from home, around two miles from the University of Sussex lab, with an image of the BEC on her screen

Dr Amruta Gadge working from home, around two miles from the University of Sussex lab, with an image of the BEC on her screen

BOSE-EINSTEIN CONDENSATE: THE FIFTH FORM OF MATTER

A Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) is known as the fifth state of matter, after solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

It is formed at a fraction above absolute zero and only in atoms that act like bosons, one of two types of fundamental particles. 

When bosonic atoms are cooled to form a condensate, they can lose their individuality. 

They behave like one big collective superatom, a bit like how photons become indistinguishable in a laser beam. 

The first BEC was shown experimentally almost 25 years ago by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US. 

Source: PNAS

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‘We are all extremely excited that we can continue to conduct our experiments remotely during lockdown, and any possible future lockdowns,’ said Peter Krüger, professor of experimental physics at the University of Sussex.

‘Enhancing the capabilities of remote lab control is relevant for research applications aimed at operating quantum technology in inaccessible environments such as space, underground, in a submarine, or in extreme climates.’

The fifth state of matter, which follows solid, liquid, gas and plasma, which is produced when the atoms in a gas become ionised.

In the mid-1920s, Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose predicted that quantum mechanics can force a large number of particles to behave like a single particle, heralding research into the so-called fifth matter.  

However, it wasn’t until June 1995 that scientists created the world's first BEC, by cooling a gas of around 2,000 rubidium atoms.

A BEC consists of a cloud of hundreds of thousands of rubidium atoms, typically is gases, cooled down to temperatures more than a billion times colder than freezing.

Image confirming the successful creation of the BEC, from left to right, as the atoms become cooled to near absolute zero and act like a single mechanical entity

Image confirming the successful creation of the BEC, from left to right, as the atoms become cooled to near absolute zero and act like a single mechanical entity

At these temperatures, atoms are close to absolute zero, or the point at which atoms stop moving.

Just above absolute zero, however, atoms take on a different property and coalesce into a single quantum object, which can sense very low magnetic fields.

‘We use multiple carefully timed steps of laser and radio wave cooling to prepare rubidium gases at these ultralow temperatures,’ said Professor Krüger. 

‘This requires accurate computer control of laser light, magnets and electric currents in microchips based on vigilant monitoring of environmental conditions in the lab while nobody is able to be there to check in person.’ 

The University of Sussex’s Quantum Systems & Devices, just outside of Brighton, conducts experiments with the aim of using a BEC as a magnetic sensor.

Just in time before lockdown measures ruled that those who can work from home should do so, the researchers set-up a 2D magnetic optical trap, an odd-looking set of metal apparatus that uses lasers and magnets, to produce trapped atoms. 

Dr Gadge setting up the lasers that control the atoms at the university's quantum lab prior to lockdown

Dr Gadge setting up the lasers

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