Researchers Create Star Wars-Like Powerful Atomic Tractor Beam in Physics First

Inspired by the wonderful and rich universe of George Lucas' Star Wars series, a team from the University of Adelaide has engineered an impressive tractor beam for atoms. The invention marks the first time ever that scientists have been able to demonstrate a highly efficient ‘waveguide trap."

The powerful atomic tractor beam, also referred to as a light-driven energy trap, has the amazing ability to pull atoms into a microscopic hole at the center of a special optical fiber using infra-red light. “Although tractor beams are green or blue in the movies, in this case the trap is made of invisible infra-red light," said Ashby Hilton, the PhD student responsible for developing the technology.

"The beam grabs hold of atoms that are floating in a chamber that is almost completely emptied of gas – a little sample of outer space on Earth. Every atom that enters the tractor beam is pulled into the fiber – there is no escape," added Hilton.

Controlling light to control atoms

Once sucked in, the atoms can be held there for long periods of time. The infra-red light interacts with the atoms to create a change in energy which drives the atoms to the most intense part of the light beam and keeps there.

"Our experiments show that we can very precisely control light to produce exactly the right conditions to control atoms," shared Hilton. In addition to being incredibly cool, the novel device opens the way for new quantum experiments that can lead to diverse advanced even futuristic applications.

"Our researchers are manipulating and measuring individual atoms and molecules to sense the world around us. This new era of quantum sensing is opening up diverse new possibilities from attempting to detect disease through finding particular molecules in the breath, to assisting miners and defense by detecting anomalous magnetic fields associated with mineral deposits or covert submarine activity," explained IPAS Director Professor Andre Luiten.

The team's beginner experimentation attempts will focus on communications. "Our first experiments intend to use these stored atoms as elements of a quantum memory. We hope that our work may eventually form part of absolutely secure communications channel that is of obvious high interest to defense, intelligence and industry," expressed lead researcher on the project Dr Philip Light.

Trapped without disruption

The researchers are also now exploring the next stage in their project which will see the tractor beam adapted to form from a hollow cone of light rather than a solid beam. The new configuration will allow the atoms to be held at the perfectly dark center of the cone essentially generating a quantum funnel where atoms can be trapped without disrupting their quantum state.

“This is an extremely powerful idea – we can move and manipulate the atoms, but are able to shield the atoms from the disruptive effect of intense light,” concluded Light.

The study is published in the journal Physical Review Applied. A video demonstrating the waveguide trap can be seen here.

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