Millions for cold chips

Physicists at The University of Nottingham are to use refrigerators made from light that can cool atoms to the lowest temperature in the Universe to develop the next generation of ultra-small electronic devices.

The academics, in collaboration with colleagues at The University of Birmingham, have been awarded almost £6m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for the creation of a new Midlands Ultracold Atom Research Centre.

Academics at the centre will use laser beams to cool atoms to a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. Cooling the atoms to these temperatures causes them to slow down, changing their behaviour and enabling scientists to harness this area of quantum physics for a range of novel uses.

One such use, to be developed at Nottingham, is the creation of ‘atom-chips’, which are similar to microchips but work by using magnets to guide entire cold atoms around air tracks above the chip like microscopic maglev trains.

The atom-chips can then be used to build high-precision sensors into a range of electronic devices. These could have many applications, for example, in high-precision navigation, underground mapping and oil prospecting and high-performance computers.

Professor Mark Fromhold, of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: ‘Although the atoms are so cold, they have built in quantum heat shields whose performance is equivalent to keeping a snowball frozen at the centre of the sun.’

Colleagues at Birmingham will work on the same area of quantum physics but will concentrate on atoms moving in ‘optical lattices’, which are crystals made from light.

The Midlands Ultracold Atoms Research Centre is the first phase in a drive to create a new Midlands Physics Alliance involving the two universities and The University of Warwick, which will bring together leaders in the field of physics with overseas collaborators to develop a new programme of courses and training for postdoctoral students across all the institutions.