Jan. 11, 2002 Researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching and at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich have observed a phase transition between two dramatically different states of matter close to temperatures of absolute zero.
With the recent award of the Nobel Prize in physics, the spectacular work on Bose-Einstein condensation in a dilute gas of atoms has been honoured. In such a Bose-Einstein condensate, close to temperatures of absolute zero, the atoms loose their individuality and a wave-like state of matter is created that can be compared in many ways to laser light. Based on such a Bose-Einstein condensate researchers in Munich together with a colleague from the ETH Zurich have now been able to reach a new state of matter in atomic physics. In order to reach this new phase for ultracold atoms, the scientists store a Bose-Einstein condensate in a three-dimensional lattice of microscopic light traps. By increasing the strength of the lattice, the researchers are able to dramatically alter the properties of the gas of atoms and can induce a quantum phase transition from the superfluid phase of a Bose-Einstein condensate to a Mott insulator phase. In this new state of matter it should now be possible to investigate fundamental problems of solid-state physics, quantum optics and atomic physics.
For a weak optical lattice the atoms form a superfluid phase of a Bose-Einstein condensate. In this phase, each atom is spread out over the entire lattice in a wave-like manner as predicted by quantum mechanics. The gas of atoms may then move freely through the lattice. For a strong optical lattice the researchers observe a transition to an insulating phase, with an exact number of atoms at each lattice site. Now the movement of the atoms through the lattice is blocked due to the repulsive interactions between them. The physicists Markus Greiner, Olaf Mandel, Tilman Esslinger, Theodor W. Hänsch and Immanuel Bloch have been able to show that it is possible to reversibly cross the phase transition between these two states of matter. The transition is called a quantum phase transition because it is driven by quantum fluctuations and can take place even at temperatures of absolute zero. These quantum fluctuations are a direct consequence of Heisenberg's uncertainty relation. Normally phase transitions are driven by thermal fluctuations, which are absent at zero temperature.
With their experiment, the researchers in Munich have been able to enter a new phase in the physics of ultracold atoms. In the Mott insulator state the atoms can no longer be described by the highly successful theories for Bose-Einstein condensates. Now theories are required that take into account the dominating interactions between the atoms and which are far less understood. Here the Mott insulator state may help in solving fundamental questions of strongly correlated systems, which e.g. are the basis for our understanding of superconductivity. Furthermore the Mott insulator state opens many exciting perspectives for precision matter-wave interferometry and quantum computing.
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