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Bose-Einstein Breakthrough

University of Otago physicists have produced a new form of matter -- Bose-Einstein Condensate [How to Bait an Atom Trap, July]. This puts New Zealand at the forefront in the race to discover new quantum properties of matter and to seek practical applications.

The scientists cooled a gas of rubidium atoms to the coldest temperatures ever created, near a billionth of a degree above absolute zero at -273.15o C, to produce the BEC.

Physics Professor Wes Sandle says "this is a tremendous achievement for the New Zealand scientific community. It demonstrates our physicists are in the highest class of world research in quantum physics. This advance gives New Zealand scientists a strategic advantage in the highly competitive race to find novel properties and innovative applications."

BEC is a new state of matter predicted to have remarkable laser-like properties. In future, these may be able to be used as a basis to manufacture highly sensitive measuring instruments and advanced computer chips. The Otago breakthrough has caused world-wide excitement amongst physicists because the importance of BEC is considered comparable to the discovery of laser technology in understanding light.

Otago joins an elite group of 14 physics research laboratories including at MIT, Stanford and the Max Planck Institute that have produced BEC.

Team leader Dr Andrew Wilson compares the search for BEC applications with the situation for the laser in the 1950s. It took 10 years before laser technology was used in industry and 30 years before widespread applications emerged such as bar code scanners, CD players, fibre optics for communications and laser surgery.