Published On: Fri, Feb 21st, 2020

Physicists grab individual atoms and merge them for 1st time, paving way for ATOMIC construction

While we vaguely understand how atoms unite to form molecules, we’ve never been able to directly witness exactly how this happens… until now. The breakthrough could pave the way for humans to build at the atomic level.

Physicists from the University of Otago recently managed to ‘grab’ two isolated atoms with a pair of laser ‘tweezers,’ hold them still and then push them together.

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Previously, scientists could only calculate and theorize how these atomic hook-ups took place, based on observations of groups of atoms cooled down to an extreme degree, but crowd observations didn’t yield much insight into the mechanics of individual interactions. 

Made from polarized light, these laser tweezers can act as traps for tiny objects, but the atoms must be cooled way down first and then separated from other atoms in empty space. The process is a lot more complicated than it sounds, consider it akin to putting a ship in a bottle, but millions of times smaller. 

“Our method involves the individual trapping and cooling of three atoms to a temperature of about a millionth of a Kelvin using highly focused laser beams in a [vacuum] chamber, around the size of a toaster,” says physicist Mikkel F. Andersen.

The Otago team took atoms of rubidium, which usually bond to form molecules of dirubidium, as the test subjects for their experiment. 

As we surely all remember from high school chemistry, molecules require at least three atoms to form. So, while the researchers could get a pair of rubidium atoms to interact, they needed a third to make the bond hold. 

Using a camera to magnify the changes in the atoms, when all three were brought together the team caught the moment the rubidium particles interacted, and it showed that they didn’t unite as nearly as quickly as existing models could explain. For now, the researchers have put the exact moment of bonding down to short-range quantum effects, that headache-inducing realm of physics we’ve yet to fully grasp. 

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“With development, this technique could provide a way to build and control single molecules of particular chemicals,” said physicist and team member Marvin Weyland, hinting at technologies like microscopic circuits and advanced medicines that we could one day construct atom by atom.  

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