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Chicago physics professor helps convert three atoms into a special state of matter

University Of Chicago : 28 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
A University of Chicago physics professor is among a team of researchers who've converted three atoms into a special state of matter.
The discovery marked two important milestones: It verified a bizarre effect in quantum mechanics, and it has brought scientists a step closer to controlling the properties of atoms.

'We are controlling the fundamental property of material,' said Cheng Chin, the assistant professor of physics at Chicago who was involved in the research at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

The breakthrough could have long-term implications for energy use, such as one day leading to more efficient electric-power lines or perhaps a new manufacturing process to convert sunlight into energy.

The group's creation of the new state of matter was published in the March 16 edition of Nature magazine. The same issue of Nature included an article about the broader context of the discovery, written by two theoretical physicists whose predictions played a role, under the tantalizing headline, 'A menage a trois laid bare.'

It's a wonderful way of describing that the experiment showed that when three atoms are put together, they attract and form a new state. That's a big deal because it confirms a theory first advanced 36 years ago by Russian scientist Vitaly Efimov.

The physicists had to get a vacuum chamber to the ultracold temperature of a billionth of a degree above absolute zero (that's minus 459.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to observe the new state of matter.

The new state behaves like the Borromean ring, a symbol of three interlocking circles that was used in the coat of arms of the aristocratic Borromeo family in Italy. The Borromean concept exists in physics, chemistry and mathematics.

'This ring means that three objects are entangled. If you pick up any one of them, the other two will follow,' Chin said. 'However, if you cut any one of them off, the other two will fall apart. There is something magic about this number of three.'

Theoretically, the Efimov state should apply to other sets of three particles at ultracold temperatures.

Chin and his Innsbruck colleagues observed the new state in a very different experiment from the one that Efimov originally suggested. Yet the result will yield important secrets, according to theoretical physicists Brett Esry and Chris Greene, who wrote the News & Views article in Nature magazine.

'This gives us renewed confidence that we're on the right track,' said Greene, a physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Greene, who with his former Ph.D. students Esry and J.P. Burke Jr. made the first prediction that the Efimov state might be seen at ultra-low temperatures, is chairman of JILA, a research institute run jointly by the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The finding might also lead to a new specialty of research, understanding the quantum mechanical behavior of a few interacting particles, according to Rudolf Grimm, who led the Innsbruck team of scientists in his lab.

Perhaps more importantly, now that the Efimov state has been achieved, scientists can aspire to engineer the very properties of matter, Chin said. The team of scientists exerted total control over the atoms in the experiment, converting them into the Efimov state and back to normal at will.

One hurdle the scientists still must leap, however, is the ultracold temperatures at which they did their experiment.

'At the moment, I don't see how this can be done at much higher temperatures,' Chin said.
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