Physical Research

Atoms Chat Long Distance

Experiment opens new possibilities in quantum simulation

20. 4. 2016 | A research team of experimental physicists led by Francesca Ferlaino and theoretical physicists led by Peter Zoller has measured long-range magnetic interactions between ultracold particles.
Simulations are a popular tool to study physical processes that cannot be investigated experimentally in detail. Conventional computers quickly reach their limits when dealing with complex simulations. At the beginning of the 1980s, Richard Feynman proposed to simulate these processes in a quantum system. Two decades later, Ignacio Cirac and Peter Zoller presented concepts how quantum processes could be studied by using ultracold atoms confined in optical lattices. In the last few years, this approach has been established and is now being applied in a variety of experiments.

Prof. Francesca Ferlaino
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Prof. Francesca Ferlaino
"We are able to control ultracold particles well in experiments and this has provided us with new insights into physical properties," says Francesca Ferlaino from the Institute for Experimental Physics of the University of Innsbruck and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In collaboration with Peter Zoller's team of theoretical physicists, her research team has now extended this approach for quantum simulations and laid the groundwork for future new research: For the first time, the physicists were able to quantitatively measure long-range interactions between magnetic atoms in optical lattices.

In the past, many studies have focused on studying the interactions of particles close to each other. "In contrast, we are working with strongly magnetic atoms, which can also interact over long distances," explains co-author Manfred Mark. For their experiment the physicists prepared an ultracold gas of erbium atoms – a Bose-Einstein condensate – in a three dimensional optical lattice of laser beams. In this simulated 'crystal', the particles were arranged similar to eggs in a carton. The distance between the particles was seven times their wave function. "By using a magnetic field we are able to directly change the direction of the mini magnets and precisely control how the particles interact – attracting or repelling each other," says first author Simon Baier.
By using a magnetic field
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(© Erbium team/Simon Baier)

By using a magnetic field | physicists are able to directly change the direction of the mini magnets and precisely control how these particles interact – attracting or repelling each other.

"Our collaboration with Zoller, Cai Zi and Mikhail Baranov was indispensable for understanding our measurement results comprehensively," underlines Francesca Ferlaino. "Our work is another important step towards a better understanding of quantum matter of dipolar atoms because their nature is a lot more complex than the atoms used for ultracold quantum gases in other experiments."

The research results lay the groundwork for future studies of novel exotic many-body quantum phases like 'checkerboard' and 'stripe phases', which might be created by long-range interactions. "Our study opens the door to finally being able to measure these type of phases," hopes Simon Baier. "In principle, we should be able to do this in our experiments as well, but we will need to cool the atoms even further from currently 70nK to approximately 2nK."
The research is supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the European Research Council ERC, among others.
  (© University of Innsbruck, AcademiaNet)

More information


  • S. Baier, M. J. Mark, D. Petter, K. Aikawa, L. Chomaz, Z. Cai, M. Baranov, P. Zoller, F. Ferlaino: Extended Bose-Hubbard models with ultracold magnetic atoms, Science 08. April 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aac9812


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