Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have cooled a mechanical object to a temperature lower than previously thought possible, below the so-called “quantum limit.”
The new NIST theory and experiments, described in the Jan. 12, 2017, issue of Nature (link is external), showed that a microscopic mechanical drum—a vibrating aluminum membrane—could be cooled to less than one-fifth of a single quantum, or packet of energy, lower than ordinarily predicted by quantum physics. The new technique theoretically could be used to cool objects to absolute zero, the temperature at which matter is devoid of nearly all energy and motion, NIST scientists said.
“The colder you can get the drum, the better it is for any application,” said NIST physicist John Teufel, who led the experiment. “Sensors would become more sensitive. You can store information longer. If you were using it in a quantum computer, then you would compute without distortion, and you would actually get the answer you want.”
The latest NIST experiment adds a novel twist—the use of “squeezed light” to drive the drum circuit. Squeezing is a quantum mechanical concept in which noise, or unwanted fluctuations, is moved from a useful property of the light to another aspect that doesn’t affect the experiment. These quantum fluctuations limit the lowest temperatures that can be reached with conventional cooling techniques. The NIST team used a special circuit to generate microwave photons that were purified or stripped of intensity fluctuations, which reduced inadvertent heating of the drum.
“Noise gives random kicks or heating to the thing you’re trying to cool,” Teufel said. “We are squeezing the light at a ‘magic’ level—in a very specific direction and amount—to make perfectly correlated photons with more stable intensity. These photons are both fragile and powerful.”
The NIST theory and experiments indicate that squeezed light removes the generally accepted cooling limit, Teufel said. This includes objects that are large or operate at low frequencies, which are the most difficult to cool.
The drum might be used in applications such as hybrid quantum computers combining both quantum and mechanical elements, Teufel said. A hot topic in physics research around the world, quantum computers could theoretically solve certain problems considered intractable today.