What is an Atom Chip

Atom chip by RAL Space
Cold atom chip as a source for atom interferometer​. Credit: RAL Space, STFC, UKRI

If you follow physics or science news, you will know that a huge part of current physics research is in the field of particle physics. Scientists aim to understand and harness the power of atoms. In laboratories across the world, scientists have been using silicon circuitry to sense the effects of their experiments, with huge silicon detectors being commonplace. You will also find silicon circuitry in the driving circuits of things like magnets and lasers, but these instruments are usually large, as it only needs to fit in a lab. There is no need to minimise. There is also an upcoming exciting area of physics that uses all of these techniques to truly harness the power of the atom known as Cold Atoms. The world of cold atoms uses the concept of trapping small amounts of atoms in a very small area, and super cooling them very close to absolute zero. At this temperature the quantum effects of the atom take over, and can be observed and maybe even harnessed.

 Atom Chip
A close up of an atom chip by The Atom Chip Lab at Ben-Gurion University

This is where Atom chips come in. They are not the only way to practice cold atoms by any means, but it is becoming a popular method to practice the art. The popularity is down to how small the overall circuit is, and the lower amounts of instrumentation needed to drive it. That being said, they are also more temperamental, and much more sensitive to things like noise. The way to trap atoms in an area is to use electric, magnetic and optical fields, all these things have control of the location and activity of the atoms. Atom chips use these three fields to confine, control and manipulate the cold atoms. If you imagine a normal Integrated Circuit (IC), the electrons move through the surface, through things like transistors, capacitors and resistors. In Atom chips the atoms are trapped above the surface, and using forces that we can control, we manipulate their motion, and internal state. The electric, magnetic and optical fields come from small structures on the chip, sometimes protruding out.

Atom chip at Vienna University of Technology
Another example of an atom chip at TU Wien. Credit: Vienna University of Technology

The area that the atoms are held in is often around 1 micrometer squared, and the amount of atoms is around 10,000. This is a surprisingly small amount when you think about it, that’s the amount of students you would find at most universities. The atoms are held at a few hundred nano Kelvin, and due to their design are often well isolated from the warm solid state environment around it. This allows their quantum state to remain undisturbed for tens or even hundreds of seconds. This is partly the basis of modern Atomic clocks. In fact the atoms used are usually the same, strontium or cesium. When you see images of modern atomic clocks, there usually is some sort of atom chip controlling the cold atom cloud directly. This is down to the ease of both reducing the size and complexity of the clocks without impacting the resolution of the clock circuit itself.

Cold Atoms Lab ISS
An artists impression of the Cold Atoms Lab on the International Space Station. Using techniques similar to the ones mentioned here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The basis of the trapping part of the circuit uses something known as a magnetic trap (sometimes known as a micro trap). Imagine a wire, for the moment we will imagine it it straight. When a current is induced through it a magnetic field is created around it, a bit like a tube moving round the wire at a certain distance. This is the red line on the diagram below. As you learnt in physics class, the intensity of that magnetic field is directly proportional to the current running through the wire. Control the current then we control the magnetic field. In a magnetic trap there is also another magnetic field induced across the entire experiment, that we can assume is constant and uniform. This is represented by the green line, and is called B. Although there is only one green line, The magnetic field ie everywhere, but the green line is the bit we really care about. Now it took me a while to visualise this, but these two magnetic fields interact, and add up. So if the wire magnetic field is travelling the same way as the field B at any point then the magnetic field gets stronger, if the magnetic field oppose then the field will get weaker at that point. This means there is a magnetic gradient across the entire experiment.

The point we care about is where the magnetic field is zero, meaning the wires magnetic field is equal to, and opposing the field B. As the magnetic field from the wire gets less as it gets further away from the wire, there is a point at a certain radius (R on the diagram) away from the wire where this is the case. The atoms used want to be in the lowest energy state, and are trying to get away from the magnetic field, so it will “seek out” the point with the minimum magnetic field. in this case, the point R distance away from the wire. The wire now has a single line of trapped atoms R distance away from it. Now imagine that wire is bent into a circle with a radius of R. All those atoms are no longer trapped in a line, but now at a single point in the center of the wire. In practice to get the required magnetic field strength it will be a coil rather than a single wire, but the concept is the same. You now have a collection of atoms trapped in a small area defined by you, to do an experiment. Most of the time the atoms are then super cooled with lasers, or trapped and compressed further. This allows experiments with Bose Einstein Condensates, and potential to make quantum “qbits” for quantum computers, but that is a post for another day.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, physics or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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