When most of us think of lasers, we imagine them to be sources of heat, but a research team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology has gone the other way with them, using them as a way to supercool objects down to a temperature the world had never seen.
In their Boulder, Colorado lab, the team organized the light produced in a laser to slow down the molecular vibration of a minuscule aluminum object, measuring just 20 micrometers wide and 100 nanometers thick.
Here’s a rendering of the supercooled object:
The more the scientists were able to slow the molecular vibration, the lower the temperature fell. In the absence of any vibration, the temperature would reach the mythic zero degrees Kelvin. While that goal remains out of reach, the scientists were able to achieve a temperature of .00036 Kelvin, which is…close to zero degrees Kelvin, also known as absolute zero.
We don’t use the Kelvin scale much in our lives, so these numbers likely don’t resonate, so let’s look at this another way. The journal Nature says this temperature is 10,000 times colder than outer space. Unless you’ve been to space recently, that doesn’t help much, either, though it’s an impressive-sounding feat nonetheless.
So let’s convert this to temperatures we’re more familiar with. Zero degrees Kelvin is -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit and -273.15 degrees Celsius. The temperature that these Colorado scientists were able to achieve, .00036 Kelvin, equates to -459.669352 Fahrenheit and -273.14964 Celsius.
— Maxime Duprez (@maximaxoo) January 15, 2017
It doesn’t get much closer than that without stopping molecular vibration altogether, which we’re a little closer to as a result of this exercise.
The full spectrum of applications for this supercooling technique certainly isn’t clear at the moment, but many feel the most practical use for the technology is actually to increase the efficiency of quantum supercomputers. As it stands now, their reliability and efficiency are compromised by “noise,” the vibrations of elements that corrupts the data being carried, leading less precise computing and output.
By cooling the components to near-stillness, the noise is reduced, if not eliminated, resulting in a more precise and reliable process, the applications of which are many.
For more color on the scientific community’s pursuit of “absolute zero,” as well as more info on the concept itself, this video should answer many of the questions you might have.