Scientists play the smallest game of baseball by throwing and catching individual atoms

Eat your heart out, Antman.Optical Trapping

The atomic empire might now have a new favorite pastime.

Through a technique known as optical trapping, scientists have shown they can throw and catch individual atoms, making the experiment potentially the smallest baseball game ever.

As described in a new study published in the journal Optica, scientists used highly focused lasers to both move and fix the atoms in place, a feat that could eventually lead to a whole new generation of quantum computers.

Although using these optical traps or tweezers is common practice to manipulate individual atoms, the scientists say this is the first time the technique has been used to release and “throw” an atom – and then trap it in another catch.

“The free-flying atoms move from one place to another without being held by or interacting with the optical trap,” said study co-author Jaewook Ahn, a physicist at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, in a press release.

“In other words, the atom is thrown and caught between the two optical traps, much like the ball travels between the pitcher and a catcher in a baseball game.”

Fly for free

In the experiment, the scientists preferred rubidium atoms that were cooled close to absolute zero. These were then suspended in an 800 nanometer laser that formed an optical trap.

To “throw” an atom, the scientists accelerated the optical trap that held it in place, then quickly turned off the lasers, releasing the cool rubidium.

They were able to send an atom a distance of 4.2 microns at a speed of just over 25 inches per second.

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Another optical trap on the receiver side then caught the atomic baseball. Not exactly an outfield throw for a human, but a gigantic leap into the atomic world.

quantum arrays

According to Ahn, the ability to “throw” these atoms could pave the way to even faster quantum computers.

“These types of flying atoms could enable a new kind of dynamic quantum computing by allowing the relative positions of qubits – the quantum equivalent of binary bits – to be changed more freely,” Ahn explained.

What Ahn is referring to is an emerging form of quantum computing technology in which neutral atoms like rubidium are packed into tight arrays that, in theory, can allow for a far denser set of qubits than traditional silicon-based arrays.

Therefore, Ahn and his team also used their technique to create such arrays and showed that the free-flying atoms were not disturbed by other atoms in their path – making this study a potential home run.

More on quantum computing: Scientists fed the Fibonacci sequence into a quantum computer and something strange happened