Ultracold Atom Lab Attempting to Cross ‘Unreachable’ Threshold

The coolest place on campus just got cooler.

After an eventful summer and the dedicated work of nine students, physics professors Hyewon and Joe Pechkis are thrilled that the ultra-high vacuum (UHV) chamber in the ultracold atom laboratory is up and running—with an ambitious goal to set a first for the CSU system.

One of many innovative research opportunities in the Science Building, the lab features a magneto-optical trap, lasers, and vacuum technology, and reflects the vision for students from different majors to come together to nurture creativity in research. After years of preparation, faculty and students are finally using the lab to cool atoms to near absolute zero, nearly freezing them in space so they display their true quantum nature.

“The absolute zero threshold is not just unreached by our lab, it’s considered unreachable, period,” said physics major Esteban Teran. “It’s not just cold like the arctic. We are going millions of times colder than outer space. Why even go cold? When you cool atoms to near this threshold, they stop acting like the atoms we know in our daily lives.”

Physics and mathematics major Farhan Rehman likes to compare the process to bowling. It’s as if a bowling ball is moving down the lane and ping-pong balls are being thrown at it to slow it down, the senior explains. The atoms are the bowling balls, and the light is the ping-pong balls. The goal is to keep hitting the atoms with light—and it will take a lot—until they finally slow down to a near-motionless state and behave more like waves. Pressure then becomes critical, as atoms will survive longer inside the chamber the lower it is and give the researchers more time to study them.

To reach this point represents years of dedication. Pechkis has been researching this subject for most of her career, but the project gained traction in 2017, when Nobel Laureate William Phillips donated a vacuum chamber as a pivotal piece of equipment to begin the lab’s construction in earnest. Since then, Pechkis has found additional grants, including an Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation to further fund its development, and secured gifts of materials from their colleagues from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

By fall 2021, assembly and students began preparing to get the chamber ready. The bulk of the endeavor took place in June and July, as they completed the assembly of the vacuum chamber without any leaks—meticulously checking nearly 300 bolts to ensure a perfect seal.

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