Thursday, January 26, 2012

First atomic X-ray laser created

Scientists working at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have created the shortest, purest X-ray laser pulses ever achieved, fulfilling a 45-year-old prediction and opening the door to a new range of scientific discovery.

This artist's conception illustrates how the new atomic hard X-ray laser is created. A powerful X-ray laser pulse from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory's Linac Coherent Light Source comes up from the lower-left corner (shown as green) and hits a neon atom (center). This intense incoming light energizes an electron from an inner orbit (or shell) closest to the neon nucleus (center, brown), knocking it totally out of the atom (upper-left, foreground). In some cases, an outer electron will drop down into the vacated inner orbit (orange starburst near the nucleus) and release a short-wavelength, high-energy (i.e., "hard") X-ray photon of a specific wavelength (energy/color) (shown as yellow light heading out from the atom to the upper right along with the larger, green LCLS light). X-rays made in this manner then stimulate other energized neon atoms to do the same, creating a chain-reaction avalanche of pure X-ray laser light amplified by a factor of 200 million. While the LCLS X-ray pulses are brighter and more powerful, the neon atomic hard X-ray laser pulses have one-eighth the duration and a much purer light color. This new laser will enable more precise investigations into ultrafast processes and chemical reactions than had been possible before, ultimately opening the door to new medicines, devices and materials. Credit: Illustration by Gregory M. Stewart, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

World's most powerful X-ray laser creates two-million-degree matter

The experiments were carried out at SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), whose rapid-fire laser pulses are a billion times brighter than those of any X-ray source before it. Scientists used those pulses to flash-heat a tiny piece of aluminum foil, creating what is known as "hot dense matter," and took the temperature of this solid plasma—about 2 million degrees Celsius. The whole process took less than a trillionth of a second.

"The LCLS X-ray laser is a truly remarkable machine," said Sam Vinko, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and the paper's lead author. "Making extremely hot, dense matter is important scientifically if we are ultimately to understand the conditions that exist inside stars and at the center of giant planets within our own solar system and beyond."

Scientists have long been able to create plasma from gases and study it with conventional lasers, said co-author Bob Nagler of SLAC, an LCLS instrument scientist. But no tools were available for doing the same at solid densities that cannot be penetrated by conventional laser beams.

"The LCLS, with its ultra-short wavelengths of X-ray laser light, is the first that can penetrate a dense solid and create a uniform patch of plasma—in this case a cube one-thousandth of a centimeter on a side—and probe it at the same time," Nagler said.

The resulting measurements, he said, will feed back into theories and computer simulations of how hot, dense matter behaves. This could help scientists analyze and recreate the nuclear fusion process that powers the sun.

"Those 60 hours when we first aimed the LCLS at a solid were the most exciting 60 hours of my entire scientific career," said Justin Wark, leader of the Oxford group. "LCLS is really going to revolutionize the field, in my view."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Physicists cool semiconductor by laser light

Researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute have combined two worlds – quantum physics and nano physics, and this has led to the discovery of a new method for laser cooling semiconductor membranes. Semiconductors are vital components in solar cells, LEDs and many other electronics, and the efficient cooling of components is important for future quantum computers and ultrasensitive sensors. The new cooling method works quite paradoxically by heating the material. Using lasers, researchers cooled membrane fluctuations to minus 269 degrees C. The results are published in the scientific journal, Nature Physics.

The experiments themselves are carried out in this vacuum chamber. When the laser light hits the membrane, some of the light is reflected and some is absorbed and leads to a small heating of the membrane. The reflected light is reflected back again via a mirror in the experiment so that the light flies back and forth in this space and forms optical resonator (cavity). Changing the distance between the membrane and the mirror leads to a complex and fascinating interplay between the movement of the membrane, the properties of the semiconductor and the optical resonances and you can control the system so as to cool the temperature of the membrane fluctuations.

From gas to solid

Laser cooling of atoms has been practiced for several years in experiments in the quantum optical laboratories of the Quantop research group at the Niels Bohr Institute. Here researchers have cooled gas clouds of cesium atoms down to near absolute zero, minus 273 degrees C, using focused lasers and have created entanglement between two atomic systems. The atomic spin becomes entangled and the two gas clouds have a kind of link, which is due to quantum mechanics. Using quantum optical techniques, they have measured the quantum fluctuations of the atomic spin.

"For some time we have wanted to examine how far you can extend the limits of quantum mechanics – does it also apply to macroscopic materials? It would mean entirely new possibilities for what is called optomechanics, which is the interaction between optical radiation, i.e. light, and a mechanical motion," explains Professor Eugene Polzik, head of the Center of Excellence Quantop at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

But they had to find the right material to work with.

In 2009, Peter Lodahl (who is today a professor and head of the Quantum Photonic research group at the Niels Bohr Institute) gave a lecture at the Niels Bohr Institute, where he showed a special photonic crystal membrane that was made of the semiconducting material gallium arsenide (GaAs). Eugene Polzik immediately thought that this nanomembrane had many advantageous electronic and optical properties and he suggested to Peter Lodahl's group that they use this kind of membrane for experiments with optomechanics. But this required quite specific dimensions and after a year of trying they managed to make a suitable one.

"We managed to produce a nanomembrane that is only 160 nanometers thick and with an area of more than 1 square millimetre. The size is enormous, which no one thought it was possible to produce," explains Assistant Professor Søren Stobbe, who also works at the Niels Bohr Institute.

Basis for new research

Now a foundation had been created for being able to reconcile quantum mechanics with macroscopic materials to explore the optomechanical effects.

Koji Usami explains that in the experiment they shine the laser light onto the nanomembrane in a vacuum chamber. When the laser light hits the semiconductor membrane, some of the light is reflected and the light is reflected back again via a mirror in the experiment so that the light flies back and forth in this space and forms an optical resonator. Some of the light is absorbed by the membrane and releases free electrons. The electrons decay and thereby heat the membrane and this gives a thermal expansion. In this way the distance between the membrane and the mirror is constantly changed in the form of a fluctuation.

"Changing the distance between the membrane and the mirror leads to a complex and fascinating interplay between the movement of the membrane, the properties of the semiconductor and the optical resonances and you can control the system so as to cool the temperature of the membrane fluctuations. This is a new optomechanical mechanism, which is central to the new discovery. The paradox is that even though the membrane as a whole is getting a little bit warmer, the membrane is cooled at a certain oscillation and the cooling can be controlled with laser light. So it is cooling by warming! We managed to cool the membrane fluctuations to minus 269 degrees C", Koji Usami explains.

"The potential of optomechanics could, for example, pave the way for cooling components in quantum computers. Efficient cooling of mechanical fluctuations of semiconducting nanomembranes by means of light could also lead to the development of new sensors for electric current and mechanical forces. Such cooling in some cases could replace expensive cryogenic cooling, which is used today and could result in extremely sensitive sensors that are only limited by quantum fluctuations," says Professor Eugene Polzik.