Achieving an important new capability in ultracold atomic gases, researchers at the Joint Quantum Institute, a collaboration of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland, have created "synthetic" magnetic fields for ultracold gas atoms, in effect "tricking" neutral atoms into acting as if they are electrically charged particles subjected to a real magnetic field. The demonstration, described in the latest issue of the journal Nature, not only paves the way for exploring the complex natural phenomena involving charged particles in magnetic fields, but may also contribute to an exotic new form of quantum computing.
As researchers have become increasingly proficient at creating and manipulating gaseous collections of atoms near absolute zero, these ultracold gases have become ideal laboratories for studying the complex behavior of material systems. Unlike usual crystalline materials, they are free of obfuscating properties, such as impurity atoms, that exist in normal solids and liquids. However, studying the effects of magnetic fields is problematic because the gases are made of neutral atoms and so do not respond to magnetic fields in the same way as charged particles do. So how would you simulate, for example, such important exotic phenomena as the quantum Hall effect, in which electrons can "divide" into quasiparticles carrying only a fraction of the electron's electric charge?
Previously, other researchers had physically spun gases of ultracold atoms to simulate the effects of magnetic fields, but rotating gases are unstable and tend to lose atoms at the highest rotation rates. In their next step, the JQI researchers plan to partition a nearly spherical system of 20,000 rubidium atoms into a stack of about 100 two-dimensional "pancakes" and increase their currently observed 12 vortices to about 200 per-pancake. At a one-vortex-per-atom ratio, they could observe the quantum Hall effect and control it in unprecedented ways. In turn, they hope to coax atoms to behave like a class of quasiparticles known as "non-abelian anyons," a required component of "topological quantum computing," in which anyons dancing in the gas would perform logical operations based on the laws of quantum mechanics.
* Y.J. Lin, R.L. Compton, K. Jimenez-Garcia, J.V. Porto and I.B. Spielman. Synthetic magnetic fields for ultracold neutral atoms. Nature, Dec. 3, 2009.