Quantum gas studies could improve precise measurement

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 the US in 1995, is typically trapped inside magnetic fields and laser light, so that its wave characteristics can be analysed.

According to a statement, the Newcastle-Durham research team has received a £1m grant from EPSRC to take this work to the next stage and explore the properties and potential applications of these ultra-cold atoms. 

The work was presented at a conference yesterday, June 26 to mark the launch of the Joint Quantum Centre Durham-Newcastle, which brought together experts in physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering from two of the UK’s leading universities.

Newcastle University’s Prof Nick Proukakis said, ‘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.”

Durham University’s Dr Simon Gardiner 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 others 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.