Ultra-cold atoms can shape and guide light

Researchers at Lancaster University in the UK have shown how atoms can control the shape and direction of light. This discovery will make further experiments several times cheaper.

Scientists explained that previous work had to rely on specially designed meta-materials to control both electrical and magnetic interactions between atoms and light. However, researchers at Lancaster University have shown that this can be done using natural elements such as ytterbium or strontium. They calculated that manipulating the behavior of atoms cooled down to -273 ° C turns them into a powerful tool for shaping and directing light.

At these temperatures, atoms move extremely slowly and can be controlled by quantum mechanical forces that become insignificant at higher temperatures.

The team used lasers to excite atoms and set them in motion. They found that when atoms act collectively, they can shape and direct light through their electrical and magnetic interactions with them. Their common behavior allows them to act like a collection of electrical charges or very small magnets that affect light.

The researchers also found a new way to push an atom with controlled forces so quickly that they can control the movement of an individual molecule in less than a trillionth of a second. The extremely sharp needle of their ultra-fast microscope serves as a technical foundation: it scans molecules carefully, like a turntable. A study by physicists from the University of Regensburg, published in the journal Nature, showed that pulses of light falling on this needle can turn it into an ultra-fast “atomic hand.”