Breakthrough in Physics – Researchers Bring Several Molecules into a Single Quantum State

Discovery could open new fields in quantum chemistry and technology.

From ultra-precise weather forecasting and earthquake sensors to unhackable networks – the potential of quantum computing is truly staggering, which explains why researchers around the world have been racing against each other to build the world’s first machine capable of harnessing the chaotic world of quantum particles.

With the recent publication of a new paper in the journal Nature, this goal is now closer to hand than ever before. The paper demonstrates a new system, developed by researchers from UC Chicago, capable of pooling multiple molecules into a single quantum state.

Professor Cheng Chin is the senior author on a new paper demonstrating how the researchers successfully brought several molecules into a single quantum state. Image courtesy of Jason Smith, University of Chicago

“People have been trying to do this for decades, so we’re very excited,” said senior author Professor Cheng Chin. “I hope this can open new fields in many-body quantum chemistry. There’s evidence that there are a lot of discoveries waiting out there.”

Scientists have been able to achieve the same effect with atoms, which are simple, spherical objects, but this is the first time that quantum coherence was imposed on a group molecules.

In distinction to atoms, molecules “can vibrate, rotate, [and] carry small magnets”, which makes them both more useful and more difficult to control – as evidenced by all previous attempts ending up in chaos.

Image of the molecules successfully pooled into a Bose-Einstein condensate. Credit: Chin lab, University of Chicago

The achievement was made possible by new capabilities that were recently added to the UC Chicago lab, allowing Chin and his colleagues to cool the molecules down to 10 nanokelvins (just above absolute zero) and squeeze them into a 2D space to prevent as much movement as possible.

This resulted in a set of perfectly lined-up molecules with the same orientation and the same vibrational frequency, all in a single quantum state. Chin compared the molecular condensate to a pristine sheet of paper for “writing” quantum information on:

“It’s the absolute ideal starting point. For example, if you want to build quantum systems to hold information, you need a clean slate to write on before you can format and store that information.”

These findings could open the door to explorations into how molecules can “march” in lock-step, essentially becoming “a new kind of molecule”.

According to Chin, the quantum regime is quite different from the traditional view of chemistry where atoms and molecules collide with each other and form new ones – the quantum world requires us to think of collective behavior, rather than actions performed by physical bodies that are fundamentally isolated from, and unrelated to, each other.

“This has been a goal of mine since I was a student,” Chin said. “So we’re very, very happy about this result.”

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