Scientists create ‘world’s smallest ball game’ with atoms

Scientists have created what they describe as “the world’s smallest ball game with atoms”.

Researchers in South Korea have made atoms – the smallest unit of matter – move like balls through the air using a technology known as optical traps.

Optical traps, also known as optical tweezers, is a technique that uses light to hold or move an object.

The scientists said atoms were able to move freely from one trap to another, with the instruments catching and throwing atoms in “the world’s smallest ball game”.

Jaewook Ahn, a professor in the Department of Physics at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology said, this is the first time an atom has been released from a trap and then caught by another one.

Prof Ahn said: “The freely flying atoms move from one place to the other without being held by or interacting with the optical trap.

“In other words, the atom is thrown and caught between the two optical traps much like the ball travels between the pitcher and a catcher in a baseball game.”

Prof Ahn and his colleagues used rubidium (an alkaline metal) atoms chilled to nearly absolute zero temperatures (minus 273C).

The traps were turned on and off to “throw” the atoms and then turned on again to “catch” the atoms.

The atoms travelled a distance of 4.2 micrometres (0.00042cm) at a speed of up to 65cm per second.

Prof Ahn said the technology could be used to make quantum computers, which use the properties of quantum physics to perform tasks deemed too complex for classical computers.

He said: “These types of flying atoms could enable a new type of dynamic quantum computing by allowing the relative locations of qubits – the quantum equivalent to binary bits – to be more freely changed.

“It could also be used to create collisions between individual atoms, opening a new field of atom-by-atom chemistry.”

In the experiments, Prof Ahn and his colleagues created free-flying atoms about 94% of the time and are now working towards a 100% success rate as part of the next steps.

The research is published in the journal Optica.