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Splitting the Unsplittable Using Quantum Mechanics

August 9th, 2012

Can a single atom be split and put back together again?

Researchers at the University of Bonn believe so, and proved it can be done, using the laws of quantum mechanics—where an object can exist simultaneously in several states.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, showed that the scientists, led by Prof. Dr. Dieter Meschede from the Institute for Applied Physics, could successfully conduct the double-split experiment—allowing a single atom to be in two places at the same time. The single atom was split in two pieces that were one hundredth of a millimeter apart, a great feat for an atom.

The experiment also allowed for an even better result—allowing the atom to be put back together without any visible damage.

The split created a sort of bridge-connector, allowing for an easy rejuvenation of the atom.

How did they do it?                          

The quantum splits can only occur under extremely frigid temperatures. One method cools a cesium atom—to a tenth of a million degrees above absolute zero, then splitting it using a laser beam. One atom can spin in two directions. It can be moved left and right through a laser, allowing the laser to split the atom through each movement. If the atom is moved in both directions simultaneously, it has no choice but to split.

“The atom has kind of a split personality, half of it is to the right, and half to the left, and yet, it is still whole,” explained the publication’s lead author, Andreas Steffen.

What does it look like?

Even through a microscope, it is virtually impossible to take a picture of the atom structure. In one image, you can see the atom on the right. In another image you can see an atom on the left. Shining a light on the atom will collapse the split. Scientists used an interferometer, built from individual atoms that conducted the measurements.

Scientists “saw” differences between magnetic fields of the two positions and accelerations, which become imprinted in the atom’s quantum mechanical state.

Overall this brings us one step closer to being able to have greater control over atoms and their uses. Studies such as this show their inevitable potential.

For more information, and an abstract on the study, visit

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