A microfabricated grating generating four new beams from a single incoming beam of light. Image: National Physical LaboratoryResearch led at the Univ. of Strathclyde has developed a portable device to produce ultracold atoms for quantum technology and quantum information processing.

The researchers have developed technology which is far more compact than previous setups but can still cool and trap large numbers of atoms for use in portable devices. They pattern the surface of a semiconductor chip to form a diffraction grating, splitting a laser into many beams that cool the atoms.

Many of the most accurate measurement devices, including atomic clocks, work by observing how atoms transfer between individual quantum states. The highest precision is obtained with long observation times, often using slow-moving ultracold atoms prepared in a large apparatus.

Portable clocks, magnetometers and accelerometers have wide-ranging applications, including navigation on earth and in space, telecomunications, geological exploration and medical imaging.

The research, with partners at the Univ. of Glasgow, Imperial College London and the National Physical Laboratory, has been published as a front-cover item in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Aidan Arnold, a Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Physics, says, “The longer the transition of atoms can be observed, the more precisely they can be measured. It is possible to shine laser light on atoms to slow them down using the Doppler effect. We can now do this in a really small device.”

Prof. Ed Hinds, who directs the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial College London, says, “These specially micro-fabricated diffraction gratings create the perfect laser beams for trapping and cooling atoms.”

The project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, ESA, the EU AQUTE project, the Wellcome Trust, the UK National Measurement Office, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society.