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Chips containing ultra-cold atoms
will enable the next generation of
navigation and sensing technology.
At close to absolute zero, atoms exhibit certain quantum-mechanical behaviours which if harnessed, can have a host of useful applications from highly accurate, tamperproof navigational systems and clocks to finding oil underground. However, maintaining atoms at a temperature a fraction above zero Kelvin requires a lot of equipment, most of which is not portable.
Physicists at the Zepler Institute are working on shrinking the vacuum chamber needed to create these ultra-cold atoms from something the size of a fridge to a chip the size of a postage stamp. In order to achieve this, Zepler Institute researchers have taken a bottom-up approach which has pushed standard silicon manufacturing processes to their limits. Using electron beam lithography, they have successfully etched deep millimetre-sized features with nanometre precision and with an ultra-high vacuum bonding machine, they are fabricating a vacuum chamber measuring just a few millimetres across. The rubidium atoms inside the chamber are cooled using a magneto-optical trap powered by a laser which will eventually also be integrated into the chip.
This vacuum chamber is based on a passive design which requires no pumps and therefore no power. Once other components, such as lasers, optics and detectors, are integrated on to the chip, the whole system can be battery powered, making it ideal for mobile applications.