Atom catcher: With lasers and magnets, Waseem Bakr traps atoms for study under the microscope

By Bennett McIntosh

THE COLDEST SPOT on the Princeton campus is a cluster of a few thousand atoms suspended above a table in Waseem Bakr’s laboratory. When trapped in a lattice of intersecting lasers at just millionths of a degree above absolute zero — and roughly one-millionth the density of air — atoms become very still, enabling Bakr, an assistant professor of physics, to study them through a microscope.

At these frigid temperatures and ultralow densities, atoms begin to act very strangely. They function less like individual particles and instead behave like waves that blur and overlap, losing their individual identity and trading the physics of the everyday world for the laws of quantum mechanics. The resulting state, known as a degenerate Fermi gas, can yield insights into new states of matter that someday may lead to applications such as superconductors and quantum computers.

Bakr uses a system of lasers and magnetic fields to cool and trap the ultracold atoms in a crystal-like lattice made from light. He then manipulates and observes the atoms using a quantum-gas microscope, a device that he helped invent during his graduate studies with Markus Greiner at Harvard University, and further improved when he was a postdoctoral researcher with Martin Zwierlein at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We use lasers to create artificial crystals in which we place these quantum-mechanical atoms where the spacing between atoms is 10,000 times larger than what you find in real crystals,” Bakr said. “We are essentially engineering the behaviors of atoms using light.”

Bakr and his team first heat a block of lithium to 800 degrees Fahrenheit to liberate individual atoms that then fly into a long tube. There, the particles collide head-on with a laser beam pointed in the opposite direction, which rapidly slows and cools them. The atoms then flow into a chamber where the intersection of several laser beams creates an electromagnetic field that confines the atoms in an “optical trap.” The trap allows the fastest-moving (and warmest) atoms to escape, further cooling the ultracold gas. The resulting cluster of atoms, Bakr said, is “the coldest stuff you can find in the universe.”

Using the microscope, Bakr can agitate a single atom to watch the disturbance propagate, or he can rearrange the entire system to simulate a different material. “If I decide I want to study graphene today,” he said, “I can arrange my lasers to make a graphene-like lattice, and suddenly the physics that I’m looking at are very different.” This precise control could hold the key to another advance, he said. “If you have 1,000 atoms, and you have control over every single atom and their interactions, these are the basic building blocks of a quantum computer,” Bakr said.

Cold atoms

Trapped by lasers and magnets, lithium atoms form a fluorescent red ball at the center of this image. In this initial stage of laser cooling, about 1 billion atoms are brought from a temperature of 350 degrees Celsius to a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero.

Bakr and his team are using ultracold atoms to study the behavior of superfluids with imbalanced spin populations. In a paper published in the August 24, 2016, issue of Physical Review Letters, Bakr and his team showed that the two-dimensional gas separates into two phases, a superfluid in the center of the trap and a  normal gas at its periphery, like the phase  separation that happens when mixing oil and  water. “Observing this phase separation is the first step in a search for exotic types of superfluidity that were predicted over 50 years ago,”

The Bakr lab’s work is supported by grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P.  Sloan Foundation.