for National Geographic News
Laser beams are best known as weapons in science fiction and as heating and cutting tools in science fact. But a new study has flip-flopped conventional physics to show lasers in a whole new light.
In a new technique, Martin Weitz and Ulrich Vogl of the University of Bonn in Germany used a laser to bring the temperature of dense rubidium gas far below the normal point at which the gas becomes a solid.
Previous research had been able to use lasers to quickly "supercool" only very diluted gases.
But "here's a case where you shine a laser on something and it actually cools down, and not just a handful of atoms, but a macroscopic object," said Trey Porto, a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology's laser-cooling group who was not involved in the new work.
The process could be used to create fascinating new states of matter, the study authors say.
"For example, if you can very quickly cool water much lower than zero Celsius [32 degrees Fahrenheit], where it would normally turn to ice, exotic crystalline and glassy states of matter would be predicted," Weitz said.
The new technique could also be used in cooling mechanisms to boost the efficiency of some stargazing equipment, he added.
"If you could cool thermal cameras that look at the stars, they may have less noise and be more sensitive."
(Read more about infrared astronomy.)
When Atoms Collide
Since a laser's color is linked to its intensity, the new technique is based on using a red laser in which the frequency has been adjusted so that the beam affects the atoms only when they collide with each other.
Weitz and Vogl shone this laser beam into gaseous rubidium atoms in a high-pressure "atmosphere" of argon.
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