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Measuring in the extreme


A microscopic atom cloud that is colder than outer space could help improve our ability to make precision measurements for the development of next-generation rotational sensors and GPS.

Mathematicians and physicists at Newcastle and Durham universities are using the principles of quantum science to harness the properties of ultracold atoms for precise measurements.

Removing the heat energy of an ordinary gas slows down the atoms so the gas condenses to form a quantum cloud – known as a Bose-Einstein condensate – which is no bigger than a few microns and far cooler than outer space.  This new state of matter, first created in ground-breaking US experiments in 1995, is typically trapped inside magnetic fields and laser light, so that its wave characteristics can be analysed.

Now the Newcastle-Durham research team has received a £1m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to take this work to the next stage and explore the properties and potential applications of these ultra-cold atoms.  The work will be presented at a conference tomorrow to mark the launch of the Joint Quantum Centre Durham-Newcastle which brings together leading experts in physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering from two of the UK’s leading universities.

Professor Nick Proukakis,  Newcastle University, explained: “Quantum gases is a relatively new area of research, but has rapidly become a well-established and diverse field, working to understand the very essence of matter – how it behaves in its simplest state.

“Just like an ordinary gas that condenses to a liquid when it is cooled – such as when steam condenses on a cold window – so these ultra-cold atoms undergo a phase change to a Bose-Einstein condensate.

“When we catch this condensate - or cloud - and pin it down what we see is that actually the atoms no longer behave as individuals but flow as one giant wave of matter."

Project lead Dr Simon Gardiner, of Durham University, added: “Ultracold atoms are ideal systems for studying dynamics far away from equilibrium, due to the very high degree of control available in experiments.

“The aim of this project is to understand how to best harness and use this information.  For example, this could help improve our ability for precision measurements, which underpin, among other systems, the functioning of the global positioning system (GPS), with the emphasis in the current project being on measurements of relative rotation.”

Set up to solve fundamental questions about the behaviour of matter, the Joint Quantum Centre has over 50 academics, researchers, and research students across the two university campuses.

Professor Carlo Barenghi, an applied mathematician at Newcastle University, adds: “The quantum physics teams at Newcastle and Durham have always worked closely together but this official accreditation puts us deep on the map.

“It gives us the opportunity to properly explore joint research opportunities and also bring in colleagues from other research areas who may be able to contribute to this important and exciting branch of science.”

The Joint Quantum Centre will be launched by a two-day event. World-renowned theoretical physicist Sandy Fetter, of Stanford University, will give an open Colloquim at Durham University this evening and the main event on Wednesday 26th June will be an all-day conference on “New Developments in Quantum Physics and Chemistry”, held at Newcastle University.

published on: 25 June 2013