In The Field

APS March: BECs hit the road

BEC1.jpgBose Einstein Condensates (BECs) are arguably the weirdest form of matter around. Basically, when you cool certain atoms to a low enough temperature, they enter a single quantum state and suddenly “collapse” into a single point sort of a quantum super atom.

Normally you need a lab full of lasers and cryogenic pumps bulky equipment to make a BEC. But just across from the Nature stall, a couple of guys from the JILA Institute in Boulder, CO, have set up a portable BEC on a little cart. “We don’t know of anyone who’s ever made a BEC at a conference before,” says Daniel Farkas, a postdoc at JILA who’s worked on the project.

Its not just a gimmick. Farkas tells me that the group he works with has just finished up a five-year grant with the Defense Advanced Projects Research Administration (DARPA) to develop the portable BEC. BEC’s, it turns out, are very sensitive to jolts and jiggles, and that makes them potentially useful as ultra-sensitive gyroscopes for inertial navigation (of the sort often used in missiles for example). It would work like this: First you split a BEC in two, then you send each half along a little path and recombine it. If there is acceleration in any one direction, the BEC will interfere with itself when it recombines, creating a characteristic pattern that would be easy to detect. In fact, calculations show that BECs have to potential to be 11 orders of magnitude (that’s nearly a trillion times) as sensitive as existing technology.

DARPA would ultimately like to see BEC’s fit onto a chip, but they have to start somewhere, and a cart ain’t bad: “To date no one has really pushed to make this technology portable,” Farkas says.

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