Coherent light production found in very low optical density atomic clouds

No atom is an island, and scientists have known for decades that groups of atoms form communities that “talk” to each other. But there is still much to learn about how atoms — particularly energetically excited ones — interact in groups.

In a study published in PRX Quantum, physicists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison observed communication between atoms at lower and lower densities. They found that the atoms influence each other at 100 times lower densities than probed before, exhibiting slow decay rates and emitting coherent light.

“It seems that (low-density) groups of excited atoms spontaneously organize to then produce light that is coherent,” says David Gold, a postdoctoral fellow in Deniz Yavuz’s group and lead author of the study. “These findings are pretty interesting from a basic science standpoint, and in terms of quantum computing, the takeaway is that even with very low numbers of atoms, you can see significant amounts of (these effects).”

A well-established property of atoms is found in electron excitation: when a specific wavelength of light hits an atom of a specific element, an electron is excited to a higher orbital level. As that electron decays back to its initial state, a photon of a specific wavelength is emitted. A single atom has a characteristic decay rate for that process. When groups of atoms are studied, their interactions are observed: the initial decay rate is very fast, or superradiant, then transitions to a slower, or subradiant, rate.

A schematic of the experimental setup. (Top) the overall apparatus used. (A) shows the setup for the first part of the experiment, where the researchers were measuring decay rates in lower and lower density clouds. (B) shows the setup for the second part of the paper, with the addition of an interferometer

Though well-established in dense clouds, this group-talk has never been studied in less dense clouds of atoms, which could have impacts on applications such as quantum computing.

In their first set of experiments, Gold and colleagues asked what the decay rate of lower-density clouds looked like. They supercooled the atoms in a cloud, hit them with an excitation laser, and recorded the decay rates as an intensity of emitted light over time. They observed the characteristic subradiance. In this case, they did not always see superradiance, likely due to the reduced number of atoms available to measure.

profile picture of David Gold
David Gold

Next, they asked what happened if they let the cloud expand — or decrease in density — for varying periods of time before repeating their experiment. They found that as the cloud become less and less dense, the amount of subradiance decreased, until eventually a density was reached where the atoms stopped behaving like a group and instead displayed single-atom decay rates.

“The most subradiance that we observed was at around a hundred times lower optical density than it had previously been observed before,” Gold says.

Now that the researchers knew that a less dense cloud still decays subradiantly to a point, they asked if the decay was happening in an isolated manner, or if the atoms were really acting as a group. If acting as a group, the emitted light would be coherent, or more laser-like, with some structure between the atoms.

They used the same experimental setup but added an interferometer, where light is split and recombined before the photons are detected. They first set the baseline interference pattern by moving the mirror closer or further away from the splitter — changing the path length of one of the beams — and mapping the interference pattern of the split light waves that were emitted from the same atom.

If there were no relationship between the two atoms and the light they emit, then they would have expected to see no interference pattern. Instead, they saw that for some distance of mirror displacement, the lightwaves did interfere, indicating that different atoms being measured were nonetheless producing coherent light.

“I think this is the more exciting thing we found: that the light that’s being emitted is coherent and it has more of the properties of a laser than you would expect,” Gold says. “The atoms are influenced by each other and not in a way we would have expected.”

Aside from the interesting physics seen in the study, Gold says the work is also applicable to quantum computing, particularly as those computers grow bigger in the future.

“Even if everything in a quantum computer is running perfectly and the system was completely isolated, there’s still this inherent thing of, well, the atoms just might decay down from [the computational] state,” Gold says.

This work was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant No. 2016136 for the QLCI center Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks.

Chicago State University students gain quantum experience through HQAN summer internships

profile photos of Anosh Wasker, Dominique Newell, Gabrielle Jones-Hall, and Ryan Stempek

This story was adapted from one originally published by HQAN

Over the past summer, the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) offered a 12-week “Research Experiences for CSU Students” internship opportunity that provided students and recent graduates from Chicago State University (CSU) with virtual research experiences addressing quantum science topics. In an August 20 online poster session, students presented the results of their summer projects to HQAN’s university and industry partners.

Mallory Conlon, HQAN’s outreach program coordinator and the quantum science outreach program coordinator with the UW–Madison department of physics, explained that this year’s program was the pilot offering. “We wanted to make sure we had the support and activity structures right before expanding this to more [minority serving institutions] (MSIs) and other underrepresented groups across the Midwest. We’re currently evaluating the program and aim to develop an expanded internship for summer 2022.” For the pilot, CSU was chosen as the sole participating MSI because of its proximity to the University of Chicago (one of HQAN’s three university partners), and because of HQAN staff connections to CSU.

The posters presented on August 20 included Anosh Wasker’s “Quantum Games for Pedagogy” (advised by Russell Ceballos of the Chicago Quantum Exchange); Dominique Newell’s “Super-Resolution Microscopy Using Nitrogen Vacancy Centers in Diamond to Analyze the Optical Near Field Diffraction Limit” (advised by Shimon Kolkowitz of the University of Wisconsin–Madison); Gabrielle Jones-Hall’s “Demonstrating Entanglement” (advised by Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)); and Ryan Stempek’s “Quantum vs. Classical Boltzmann Machines for Learning a Quantum Circuit” (advised by Bryan Clark of UIUC).

Wasker is pursuing a Master’s at CSU; his long-term goals are to go for a PhD and then work in industry. Over the summer, he developed an air-hockey-inspired computer game that teaches players some of the counterintuitive concepts involved in quantum—particularly the Hong-Ou-Mandel (HOM) effect. He says he’s passionate about quantum science and has noticed that many opportunities are coming up in the field, but that it’s difficult for people to find “access points” into learning about this intimidating topic so that they can seize those opportunities. His summer project was inspired by his belief that learning through play is a powerful way to gain understanding.

Newell recently graduated from CSU with a BS in physics, with a minor in chemistry. She spent the summer studying the propagation of light through a laser beam that travels through a nitrogen vacancy center in diamond, as observed through a confocal microscope. The goal was to locate the zero intensity points above and below the focal plane of a Gaussian beam by using its own electromagnetic field.

Jones-Hall is now in graduate school at Mississippi Valley State University. She’s working towards a Master’s in Bioinformatics but plans to return to quantum after completing that degree, so her internship project—which worked on developing a quantum-themed escape room designed to teach players the concept of quantum entanglement—will be relevant to her later work.

Stempek will graduate in December with a Master’s in computer science and then work in industry. His summer project aimed to show that a quantum Restricted Boltzmann Machine (Q-RBM) has the potential to learn the probability distribution over a set of inputs more accurately than a classical RBM (C-RBM) can for the same circuit. He says the internship was a great opportunity for him to further build his Python skills and problem-solve through the ups and downs of research. “[It] was really beneficial,” he says, “and actually, moving into industry, I feel that I’ll have a greater sense of self-confidence… It was a great experience!”

HQAN is a partnership among the University of Chicago, UIUC, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is funded by the National Science Foundation.