Researchers have made a long-lived, record-cold gas of molecules that follow the wave patterns of quantum mechanics instead of the strictly particle nature of ordinary classical physics. The creation of this gas boosts the odds for advances in fields such as designer chemistry and quantum computing.
In a quantum gas, all of the molecules' properties are restricted to specific values, or quantized, like rungs on a ladder or notes on a musical scale. Chilling the gas to the lowest temperatures gives researchers maximum control over the molecules.
The two atoms involved are in different classes: Potassium is a fermion (with an odd number of subatomic components called protons and neutrons) and rubidium is a boson (with an even number of subatomic components). The resulting molecules have a Fermi character.
The process for making the molecules begins with a gas mixture of very cold potassium and rubidium atoms confined by a laser beam. By sweeping a precisely tuned magnetic field across the atoms, scientists create large, weakly bound molecules containing one atom of each type.