June 5th, 2012 by James Ayre
An atom has been split into halves, separated, and then put back together, in new research from the University of Bonn. The word “atom” literally means “indivisible,” yet quantum mechanics allows an atom to be split and put back together in a way similar to rays of light.
The researchers are doing this work because they want to build quantum mechanics bridges, by letting the atom being pulled apart touch adjacent atoms, forming a bridge between them.
Dividing atoms brings to mind things like nuclear fission and radiation. However, this is a completely different process. The laws of quantum mechanics allow something to exist in several different states at once. This is what the “double-slit” experiment is based on, an object going to two separate slits at once.
In this experiment, the researchers succeeded in keeping a single atom in two places more than 10 micrometers apart, that’s a one-hundredth of a millimeter. That is an enormous distance for an atom. Afterwords, the atom was put back together undamaged.
These quantum effects can only occur at the lowest temperatures and with very careful handling. One method is to cool a cesium atom using lasers just slightly above absolute zero and then using another laser to move it. The laser is the key to this method because atoms have a spin that can go in two directions. Using the spin, the atom can move to the left of the right like a conveyer belt. The key to this is that the atom’s spin can be in both directions at once.
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“The atom has kind of a split personality, half of it is to the right, and half to the left, and yet, it is still whole,” explained Andreas Steffen, the publication’s lead author.
This isn’t visible directly, though. If you shine a light on the atom, the split will collapse. If imaged, the atom sometimes shows on the left, the right, or in the center, but the split can be proved by putting the atom back together.
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“Thus an interferometer can be built from individual atoms that can, e.g., be used to measure external impacts precisely. Here, the atoms are split, moved apart and joined again. What will become visible, e.g., are differences between the magnetic fields of the two positions or accelerations since they become imprinted in the quantum mechanical state of the atom. This principle has already been used to very precisely survey forces such as Earth’s acceleration.”
The researchers, however, are looking for something else — they want to simulate complex quantum systems. Many physicists are currently trying to simulate plant photosynthesis this way with small quantum systems, because the photosynthesis phenomena can’t be simulated by today’s supercomputers.
The first step to a simulator like this would consist of modeling the movement of electrons in solid bodies, gaining insight for electronic devices.
For something like this to work, though, in addition to the individual atoms being well controlled, they would have to be linked together using the laws of quantum mechanics.
“For us, an atom is a well-controlled and oiled cog,” said Dr. Andrea Alberti, the team lead for the Bonn experiment. “You can build a calculator with remarkable performance using these cogs, but in order for it to work, they have to engage.”
“This is where the actual significance of splitting atoms lies: Because the two halves are put back together again, they can make contact with adjacent atoms to their left and right and then share it. This allows a small network of atoms to form that can be used — like in the memory of a computer — to simulate and control real systems, which would make their secrets more accessible.”
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