B E C: The New Phase of Matter
A new phase of matter has been discovered seventy years after Albert
Einstein predicted it’s existence. In this new state of matter, atoms do not
move around like they would in an ordinary gas condensate. The atoms move in
lock step with one another and have identical quantum properties. This will
make it easier for physicists to research the mysterious properties of quantum
mechanics. It was named “Molecule of the Year” because it was such a major
discovery, but it is not a molecule at all. The phase, called the Bose-Einstein
condensate (BEC) follows the laws of quantum physics.
In early 1995, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and
Technology and the University of Colorado were the first to uncover the BEC.
They magnetically trapped rubidium atoms and then supercooled the atoms to
almost absolute zero. The graphic on the cover shows the Bose-Einstien
condensation, where the atom’s velocities peak at close to zero velocity, and
the atoms slowly emerge from the condensate. The atoms were slowed to the low
velocity by using laser beams. The hardware needed to create the BEC is a
bargain at $50,000 to $1000,000 which makes it accessible to physics labs around
The next step is to test the new phase of matter. We do not know yet if
it absorbs, reflects,or refracts light. BEC is related to superconductivity and
may unlock some mysteries of why some minerals are able to conduct electricity
without resistance. The asymmetrical pattern of BEC is is thought by some
astrophysicists to explain the bumpy distribution of matter in the early
universe, a distribution that eventually led to the formation of galaxies.
Physicists are working on creating an atom laser, using new technology derived
from the BEC. The new lasers would be able to create etchings finer than those
that etch silicon chips today.
The discovery of BEC has prompted a lot of research of the new phase.
BEC is expected to yield benefits to industry and society. I expect that large
businesses will take advantage of the new technology and start making products
using the technology. This will probably be in the form of the atom lasers BEC
is expected to make possible. The lasers might be used for laser surgery, or
any application where lasers are used today.