To find some among the coldest objects in the universe, you don’t have to go much further than the local university. There, a physicist can use laser light and magnets to cool atoms below an astonishing 450 Fahrenheit. These ultrahome atoms can be used to detect even the weakest magnetic fields in the room or to build a precision clock of a quarter of a second. But they probably couldn’t take those sensors or clocks out of the lab because they’re so big and fragile.
Now, a team of physicists at the University of Nottingham has shown that 3D printing parts for these ultrahuman quantum experiments allow their devices to be reduced to a third of their normal size. Their work, published in the journal Physical Review X Quantum in August, it could open the door to a faster, more accessible way to make smaller, more stable, and customized custom configurations for experiments.
As they follow the rules of quantum mechanics, extremely cold atoms have new and useful behaviors. “Ultrasonic atoms are key technologies that are embedded in many different precision instruments,” says John Kitching, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who was not involved in the research.
“Ultra-cold atoms are excellent time sensors. They are excellent sensors for what we call inertial forces, so acceleration and rotation. They are excellent sensors for magnetic fields. And they’re great sensors of emptiness, ”adds colleague Stephen Eckel, who wasn’t even involved with the work.
As a result, physicists have long tried to use ultra-cold atomic devices space exploration, where they can aid navigation by sensing changes in the acceleration of the vehicle, to hydrology, where they can detect groundwater gravitation by detecting gravitational pull above. However, the process of taking atoms cold enough to perform one of these tasks is often complex and tedious. “After spending a lot of time experimenting with cold atoms, I always feel disappointed, spending all my time solving technical problems,” says Nathan Cooper, a physicist at the University of Nottingham and one of the co-authors of the study.
The key to cooling and controlling atoms is to hit them with a finely tuned laser light. Warm atoms tread at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour very cold atoms almost standing still. Physicists make sure that every time they hit a warm atom with a laser beam, the light makes a splash, the atom loses some energy, slows down, and becomes colder. They usually work on a 5-8 meter table covered with a maze of mirrors and lenses — optical components — the light that guides and manipulates light is stored in the direction of millions of atoms, often rubidium or sodium. empty chamber. Physicists use magnets to control where all the ultrahome atoms are in this chamber; their fields act like fences.
Compared to particle accelerators or large telescopes for miles, these experimental configurations are small. However, they are very large and fragile to become a marketable device for use outside of academic laboratories. Physicists often spend months aligning all the small elements in optical labyrinths. Even a slight shake of the mirrors and lenses — something that could happen in the basement — would mean major delays in the work. “What we wanted to try and do is build something that is done very quickly and hopefully it will work reliably,” Cooper says. So he and his assistant went for 3D printing.
The Nottingham group’s experiment doesn’t take up an entire table: it has a volume of 0.15 cubic meters, which makes it slightly larger than a stack of 10 pizza boxes. “It’s very, very small. We have reduced the size by about 70 per cent compared to the usual configuration, ”says Somaya Madkhaly, a Nottingham graduate student and first author of the study. To build it, he and his colleagues worked on something similar to a highly customizable Lego game. Instead of buying the pieces, they assembled their setup from 3D printed blocks to fit as they wanted.