27 Sep 2010

Otago scientists work out how to 'see' single atom

5:01 pm on 27 September 2010

In a world first, University of Otago scientists have developed a technique which enables them to not only isolate and capture a single atom consistently but to "see" and photograph this atom.

Their work has been published in the scientific journal Nature Physics and is a major step towards building ultra-fast quantum computers.

The process takes a matter of seconds, starting by dramatically slowing down a cloud of about 10,000 atoms in a vacuum chamber.

A laser beam is then used to hold about 50 atoms. Finally, light from another laser at a particular frequency causes the atoms to repel each other, leaving a lone atom.

One atom is so tiny that 10 billion of them side by side would stretch just a metre in length.

The quantum computers of the future - computers so fast they've been likened to supercomputers on steroids - need about 20 or 30 separate atoms trapped at the one time.

Other groups around the world have seen and photographed neutral atoms before, but not consistently until now.

Lead researcher Dr Mikkel Andersen says previous attempts have worked only 50% of the time.