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Cold Atoms on Show

For a few hours on Sunday the 15th of November Dundee contained one of the coldest places in the universe! Dr Donatella Cassettari and PhD student Philip Ireland were responsible for the phenomenon as they demonstrated laser cooling of atoms to the public attending Dundee Science Festival's 'Atoms Colder than Space' exhibit at the Lasers & Light Family Day.


Cutting-edge research involving ultracold atoms typically requires a temperature-stabilised environment complete with the necessary vacuum chamber, electronics and lasers - as the team has in their own research laboratory in St Andrews. This year however, as part of the celebration of the International Year of Light, the Cassettari group and collaborators at the University of Strathclyde constructed a new portable apparatus for laser cooling of atoms. The entire exhibit is easily transported in the boot of a car and has a footprint of only one square metre, while a single laser beam is used to trap a few million atoms at sub-milliKelvin temperatures. Phil is pictured with the display above, where the cloud of cold atoms is visible on the screen of the laptop. The experimental arrangement is shown below. The atoms are trapped in the rectangular vacuum cell and between the two electromagnet coils that are seen towards the right of the picture.

Although the apparatus, which debuted at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in February, is only for demonstration purposes, there is a definite drive within the cold atom community to produce miniaturised and portable setups in order to develop quantum technology for real world applications such as highly-sensitive gravimeters and accelerometers - an area in which both groups have recently been active.

This apparatus has been jointly funded by the University of St Andrews, the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensing and Metrology, the Scottish Funding Council and the Knowledge Transfer Network.

First published BDS 30.11.15