Researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand have devised a method for ‘holding’ individual atoms in place, which could ultimately lead to big advancements in the quest for ever smaller technologies.

Before we get into the more technical details, here is why the breakthrough could prove to be a major one:

“Research on being able to build on a smaller and smaller scale has powered much of the technological development over the past decades,” Associate Professor Mikkel Andersen was quoted saying on the Otago University website.

“For example, it is the sole reason that today’s cellphones have more computing power than the supercomputers of the 1980s.

“Our research tries to pave the way for being able to build at the very smallest scale possible, namely the atomic scale, and I am thrilled to see how our discoveries will influence technological advancements in the future.”

Mikkel Andersen (left) and Marvin Weyland in the physics lab. Credit: University of Otago

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Until now, scientists have not been able to fully comprehend the properties of individual atoms and the interactions between each other.

Instead they had to work out the relationships which existed between individual atoms by calculating on a statistical average from a crowd of a large number of atoms.

But now, the Otago-based scientists are able to hone their focus in on individual atoms and have discovered a previously unseen view into the microscopic world.

“Our method,” Andersen explains, “involves the individual trapping and cooling of three atoms to a temperature of about a millionth of a Kelvin using highly focused laser beams in a hyper-evacuated (vacuum) chamber, around the size of a toaster.

“We slowly combine the traps containing the atoms to produce controlled interactions that we measure.”

Key to the process are laser-based forceps – which are able to ‘hold’ microscopic objects in place.

This allows the researchers to observe how atoms interact with each other during the formation of a molecule:

“Two atoms alone can’t form a molecule, it takes at least three to do chemistry,” elaborated Postdoctoral Researcher Marvin Weyland.

“Our work is the first time this basic process has been studied in isolation, and it turns out that it gave several surprising results that were not expected from previous measurement in large clouds of atoms,” he continued.

“By working at this molecular level, we now know more about how atoms collide and react with one another. With development, this technique could provide a way to build and control single molecules of particular chemicals.”

According to the article published, the professors say that there is ‘a need for further theoretical developments in this area of experimental quantum mechanics,’.

This means it will likely still be some time before their new discoveries are put into practical use in the technology world.