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Physicists Capture Individual Atoms Merging In World First



2021 is turning out to be a great year to see how atoms interact up close. In January, researchers showed the creation of chemical bonds among rhenium atoms. Now a different team have "held" atoms in place and discovered previously unknown interactions among them.


As reported in Physical Review Letters, researchers from the University of Otago have witnessed the interaction of three rubidium atoms. Each atom was trapped, isolated, and placed in a chamber with no other atoms inside and at a temperature just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. The goal was to study in detail how a single molecule comes to be. The team brought the three trapped atoms together and followed their interaction with a microscope camera. Two of the atoms merged into a molecule and all three gained energy from the reaction.


“Two atoms alone can’t form a molecule, it takes at least three to do chemistry. 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,” postdoctoral researcher Marvin Weyland, who spearheaded the experiment, said in a statement.


The novelty of the approach is that they observed this interaction at a single event level, providing a clearer view of what’s happening. Previous studies have looked at many-atom events to study molecule formation in a different way.  


“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,” Weyland explained.


The study highlights the need for revision in the theoretical framework. The interaction took much longer than expected. This might be due to a subtle interplay between atomic forces and how the researchers isolated the atoms, but the team will have to follow-up with further research to find out if this is indeed the case.

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