A team of MIT researchers have achieved the nigh-impossible: they managed to chill molecules to near absolute zero.
Everything around us is comprised of molecules which are constantly whizzing back and forth. This constant motion causes sudden collisions between the countless molecules. But this behavior is only characteristic of ambient temperatures. When things cool off, molecules behave completely differently.
Physicists have long believed that bringing temperatures to near absolute zero would influence the manner in which molecules interact. In fact, they suspected that the movement of molecules would come to a halt so that all molecules would behave as one collective body.
Experimental physicists are now trying to create these conditions by artificially cooling molecules as close to absolute zero as it gets.
By reaching such temperatures, physicists explain, molecules would begin exhibiting an exotic behavior and may even form strange and new states of matter which haven’t yet been observed in the physical world.
The reason why scientists cannot reach the temperature of absolute zero is that it is physically impossible. For an experiment to reach absolute zero, one would have to constantly extract an infinite amount of heat.
So the team of MIT researchers took a sodium-potassium (Na-K) gas and employed lasers to dissipate the energy of the molecules contained therein, effectively cooling the gas. Martin Zwierlein and his colleagues succeeded in decreasing the temperatures of the gas to a whopping 500 nanokelvins (500-billionths of a degree shy of absolute zero).
These temperatures are much lower than those encountered in interstellar space.
After succeesing in obtaining these ultracold temperatures, the researchers began monitoring the molecules’ behavior. Curiously enough, these molecules behaved just as physicists had expected. The molecules became stable and ceased reacting with neighboring molecules.
Electric charge distribution was also altered as the ultracold molecules began showing powerful dipole moments.
At normal temperatures, Potassium and Sodium do not form compounds because of their positive electrical charges. When two molecules both display positive electrical charges, they repel each other.
Much as with life, it’s opposites that attract each other (such as sodium, which is positively charged, and chlorine, which is negatively charged).
By using the powerful lasers, the research team at MIT created extremely cold clouds of individual atoms. By adding a powerful magnetic field around the molecules, they achieved impressive feats: they created sodium potassium molecules.
The one frenetic, vibrating molecules cooled down and became effectively stilled, Martin Zwierlein explained.
At such temperatures, researchers are close to what Zwierlein calls quantum mechanical matter waves. The team, he adds, is very close to obtaining the temperatures at which quantum mechanics become major players in molecule motion.
Granted, the sodium-potassium molecule was short-lived and not as stable as everyday chemicals we encounter. After 2.5 seconds, the molecule broke up. Despite this instability, the team’s efforts pave the way for further research. Hopefully, the future will bring additional insights into the exotic states that molecules may enter.
Image Source: MIT Newsoffice
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