Thursday, 28 January 2010

Laser Cooling

Last semester I was helping out teaching a bit of quantum and atomic physics. It was quite fun going back to stuff I was a little hazy on the first time. I finally understand the periodic table for one thing. Another thing that I knew about but never really got the detail is laser cooling. This is really nice, I'll blast through it here. Watch out for the stat-mech bit, blink and you miss it.

In an atom electrons are not free to sit anywhere they want (more or less), they inhabit precisely defined quantum states that have well defined energies, angular momenta etc. Therefore if you give an atom a kick then it will release the energy you give it in precisely defined packets of energy. So if you take the light emitted by the atoms and put it through a spectrometer (could just be a prism) you'd see something like this, from here, for sodium.

You'll recognise the orange line from the street lamps that are slowly on their way out. I did a version of this experiment when I was an undergrad where we did the opposite, we shone white light through sodium gas and while most of it goes through the frequencies that match the right transition frequencies get absorbed and are missing from the final spectrum. Might look like this, ish

Notice that the lines aren't all that sharp whereas I said they should be precise lines. This is for a number of reasons. One is that the uncertainty principle doesn't like precise energies. There's an uncertainty attached to the lifetime of atomic transitions or collisions. Another, more important effect is Doppler shifting due to the temperature of the gas. We can assume that the atoms in the gas have a distribution of velocities that comes from the famous Boltzmann distribution

Light emitted from a moving atom will be Doppler shifted which will take our precise emission line and spread it out around the average. This property turns out to be very useful and what we'll use. First a mention about the laser.

Lasers are brilliant. With a laser you can send in a beam of photons with a highly tuned narrow band frequency. When a photon hits with a frequency that matches the absorption frequency of the atom, they collide and scatter. When it's too much or too little it will most likely just go straight through.

So finally we get to how you cool the gas. If you send in a laser pulse into a warm gas of atoms then different atoms will see different things. Thanks to the Doppler shift, an atom moving with speed, v, will see the laser frequency, f_0, Doppler shifted to (c = speed of light)

Atoms moving away from the laser see it red shifted (lower frequency), atoms moving toward the laser see it blue shifted (higher frequency). If we tune the laser to just below the absorption frequency of the atom then the only atoms that collide with the beam are those moving towards it (the ones that see the blue shift).

Were it not for the precision of the transition level the laser would equally kick atoms moving towards it and atoms moving away - adding no net energy into the system. However, if we only collide with atoms moving towards the beam then we can actually remove energy. What's even more staggering is that this actually works!

Laser cooling can make things seriously cold. You may have seen the headlines that the LHC is colder than space. Impressive given the size of the thing, but space is about 2 Kelvin. This is peanuts compared to laser cooling. This can get a gas down around 1 mK - that's a factor of a thousand. You can get even colder with new techniques but somehow laser cooling pleases me the most.

So that's laser cooling. It's beautifully simple, uses basic ideas from quantum mechanics, relativity, statistical mechanics and then makes something brilliant thanks to a laser.