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Observing supercooled atoms could improve semiconductor technology

Atoms — the building blocks of all matter — remain as complex and mysterious as ever. Science, in general, remains this way due to the vast applications, research and discoveries which can still be made. This new study proves how much and how little we know about the world around us.

Professor Martin Wolfram Zwierlein, the principal investigator at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, made a remarkable discovery along with the rest of his team.

Freezing atoms to several nanokelvins (a temperature just slightly above absolute zero) the team trapped the slow-moving atoms in a lattice consisting of crisscrossing lasers. Using a powerful microscope they captured images of the atoms placed in the lattice.

Atoms move at incredibly fast speeds. The hydrogen atom, for example, can reach speeds of over 2000km/s per second according to detector systems physicist, Carl Zorn of Jefferson Lab. Once they’re cooled, their forms, and applications can be studied in various superfluids, superconductors and quantum magnets.

Atoms ‘carve out a little space for themselves where it’s very unlikely to find a second guy inside that space’

It was noted that some atoms seemed to show “anti-social” behaviour, and stayed away from other atoms. Whereas some atoms seemed to cling together with “alternating magnetic orientations”.  Other atoms seemed to fill the gap and began “piggybacking” on others.

The team believed that these observations could shed some important light on the way superconductors behave. These superconductors house electrons which pair up and travel at incredible speeds without causing friction, resulting in no energy loss.

Superconductors have various applications such as Maglev Trains which essentially use magnetic levitation due to superconductors repelling magnetic fields. They’re also used in hydrogen colliders and particle accelerators, the same ones which create “mini” big bangs according to the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Learning from this atomic model, we can understand what’s really going on in these superconductors, and what one should do to make higher-temperature superconductors, approaching hopefully room temperature,” said Zwierlein to MIT news.

If superconductors could be designed to operate and exist at room temperature, the applications could be endless. there’s a possibility that they could create an era of incredibly efficient electrical units according to MIT.

“For us, these effects occur at nanokelvin because we are working with dilute atomic gases. If you have a dense piece of matter, these same effects may well happen at room temperature,” said Zwierlein.

“We haven’t played all of our tricks yet, so we think we can get colder,” he concluded.