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Scientists create a new state of matter where quantum mechanics reigns supreme

Columbia University physicist Sebastian Will and his team have successfully created a new state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate
Columbia University physicist Sebastian Will and his team have successfully created a new state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate. (CREDIT: Columbia University)

In a groundbreaking achievement, Columbia University physicist Sebastian Will and his team have successfully created a new state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) using molecules.

This quantum leap in scientific research is detailed in their recent publication in the prestigious journal, Nature. With the support of theoretical collaborator Tijs Karman from Radboud University in the Netherlands, Will's lab has reached new frontiers in quantum physics.


The Basics of Bose-Einstein Condensates

BECs are a fascinating state of matter predicted nearly a century ago by physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein. These condensates form when particles are cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero, causing them to coalesce into a single quantum entity. This unique state of matter allows scientists to explore quantum mechanics on a more manageable scale compared to individual atoms or molecules.

The journey to create a BEC from molecules has been long and arduous. The first atomic BECs were created in 1995, a milestone recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. However, atoms are relatively simple compared to molecules, which consist of two or more atoms bonded together. These molecular structures present significant cooling challenges that have taken decades to overcome.


The Will lab's BEC is composed of sodium-cesium molecules cooled to just five nanoKelvin, or about -459.66 °F. Remarkably, this molecular BEC remains stable for two seconds, a substantial duration in the realm of ultracold physics. This stability is crucial for exploring various quantum phenomena, including new types of superfluidity, where matter flows without experiencing any friction.

“Molecular Bose-Einstein condensates open up whole new areas of research, from understanding truly fundamental physics to advancing powerful quantum simulations,” said Will. “This is an exciting achievement, but it’s really just the beginning.”


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The Role of Microwaves in Cooling

Achieving such low temperatures required innovative techniques. The Will lab employed a combination of laser cooling and magnetic manipulations, but to reach the necessary ultra-low temperatures, they introduced microwaves into their cooling process. Microwaves, a form of electromagnetic radiation, are commonly known for heating food. However, in this context, they serve a unique purpose.

Microwaves create shields around individual molecules, preventing them from colliding and forming larger complexes that would escape the sample. This method, proposed by Karman, allows the removal of only the hottest molecules, similar to blowing on a hot cup of coffee to cool it down. This selective removal process results in a cooler overall sample, enabling the formation of the BEC.


The Will lab's success was further enhanced by introducing a second microwave field. This additional field not only improved cooling efficiency but also allowed for the precise control of molecular interactions. By manipulating the orientation of the molecules, researchers can explore new quantum states and phases of matter.

“By controlling these dipolar interactions, we hope to create new quantum states and phases of matter,” said Ian Stevenson, a Columbia postdoctoral researcher.


Implications for Quantum Physics

The implications of this achievement are vast. Jun Ye, a pioneer of ultracold science, praised the work as a significant contribution to multiple scientific fields, including quantum chemistry and the study of quantum materials. “Will’s experiment features precise control of molecular interactions to steer the system toward a desired outcome—a marvelous achievement in quantum control technology,” he said.

The stability of the molecular BECs, lasting upwards of two seconds, opens new possibilities for quantum research. This extended duration allows for more detailed investigations into quantum physics phenomena. One promising area is the creation of artificial crystals using BECs trapped in an optical lattice made from lasers. These quantum simulators could mimic the interactions in natural crystals, offering insights into condensed matter physics.


Quantum simulators made with atoms are limited by short-range interactions, but molecular BECs introduce more complex interactions. “The molecular BEC will introduce more flavor,” said Will, hinting at the potential for new discoveries.

The team also plans to explore the behavior of BECs in two-dimensional systems. Transitioning from three to two dimensions can reveal new physical phenomena, making 2D materials a significant area of research. "We would like to use the BECs in a 2D system. When you go from three dimensions to two, you can always expect new physics to emerge," said PhD student Weijun Yuan.


A New Era in Quantum Research

This achievement marks the beginning of an exciting era in quantum research. With a molecular BEC in hand, scientists can now test numerous theoretical predictions and explore uncharted territories in quantum physics. The Will lab's work paves the way for advancements in understanding fundamental physics and developing powerful quantum simulations.

“It seems like a whole new world of possibilities is opening up,” Will said. As research continues, the insights gained from these molecular BECs could lead to breakthroughs in various scientific fields, shaping the future of quantum technology.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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