MIT physicists developed a technique to arrange atoms (represented as spheres with arrows) in much closer proximity than previously possible, down to 50 nanometers. The group plans to use the method to manipulate atoms into configurations that could generate the first purely magnetic quantum gate — a key building block for a new type of quantum computer. In this image, the magnetic interaction is represented by the colorful lines. (Image: Courtesy of the researchers; MIT News)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Could moving atoms closer together than ever before open the door to the next quantum breakthrough? Physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new technique that allows them to arrange atoms in two distinct layers separated by a mere 50 nanometers – about 2,000 times thinner than a human hair. This monumental achievement opens up exciting possibilities for studying exotic quantum phenomena and developing novel technologies.

The study, published in Science and led by Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, used laser light to trap and cool dysprosium atoms to ultra-low temperatures near absolute zero. At these extreme conditions, the atoms behave more like waves than particles, enabling researchers to manipulate them with exquisite precision.

Imagine a pair of invisible sheets, each made up of a single layer of atoms. Now, picture bringing those sheets so close together that they’re almost touching, but not quite. That’s essentially what the MIT scientists have accomplished, except on a scale so tiny it’s difficult to wrap your head around.

To put it in perspective, if an atom were the size of a marble, the two layers would be separated by just a few inches. But because atoms are so incredibly small, the actual distance between the layers is only 50 nanometers. That’s like taking two pieces of paper and holding them apart with a single strand of spider silk.

“We have gone from positioning atoms from 500 nanometers to 50 nanometers apart, and there is a lot you can do with this,” says Wolfgang Ketterle, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Physics at MIT, in a media release. “At 50 nanometers, the behavior of atoms is so much different that we’re really entering a new regime here.”

Creating these atomic bilayers required a clever trick. The researchers used two different colors of laser light, each one specifically tuned to interact with atoms in a particular quantum state, or energy level. It’s a bit like having two TV remote controls, one for each layer of atoms. By carefully adjusting the laser beams, they were able to trap the atoms and move them around with nanometer precision.

What makes this setup truly special is the way the atoms in the two layers interact with each other. Even though they’re not physically touching, the atoms can still “feel” each other’s presence through a peculiar force called dipolar interaction. It’s similar to how two tiny bar magnets would attract or repel each other, even from a short distance.

In the atomic realm, these dipolar interactions can give rise to all sorts of strange and wonderful behaviors. For example, the researchers observed that the atoms in one layer could actually “talk” to the atoms in the other layer and exchange energy, almost like they were engaged in a microscopic game of telephone. This phenomenon, known as sympathetic cooling, could potentially be used to build ultra-efficient refrigerators for cooling down quantum computers.

Cryogenic system for quantum computing
Cryogenic system for quantum computing (© Thanthara –

But the most exciting possibilities lie in the realm of fundamental physics. By studying how atoms behave in these closely spaced bilayers, scientists hope to gain new insights into exotic states of matter like superfluids and quantum magnets. These materials have properties that seemingly defy the laws of classical physics, such as the ability to flow without friction or resist changes in magnetic fields.

Down the road, the atomic bilayer setup could also be used as a platform for developing quantum technologies, such as ultra-precise sensors, secure communication networks, and powerful computers that can solve problems beyond the reach of any classical machine. It’s a bit like having a miniature quantum playground where scientists can tinker with the building blocks of matter and see what new gadgets they can dream up.

Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done before these applications become a reality. The MIT team plans to conduct more experiments to better understand the subtle dance of dipolar interactions between the atomic layers. They also want to explore what happens when the atoms are cooled down even further to temperatures so low that quantum effects completely take over.

But even at this early stage, the results are nothing short of remarkable. By pushing the boundaries of atomic manipulation, these researchers have given us a glimpse into a world that’s both strangely familiar and utterly alien – a world where the rules of quantum mechanics reign supreme, and the line between science and science fiction starts to blur.

As we continue to explore this strange and wonderful frontier, one thing is clear: the future of physics is looking brighter than ever, and it all starts with a humble pair of atomic sheets, separated by a distance so small it’s almost hard to believe. But in the grand scheme of things, that tiny gap might just be the key to bridging the gap between the world we know and the one we’ve only begun to imagine.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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