Long-range tunneling of interacting quantum particles

Quantum tunnelling manifests itself in a multitude of well-known microscopic phenomena. Experimental physicists in Innsbruck, Austria, in collaboration with a theorist at the University of Strathclyde have now directly observed quantum particles transmitting through a whole series of up to five potential barriers under conditions where a single particle would not be able to move.

One of the most remarkable consequences of the rules in quantum mechanics is the capability of a quantum particle to penetrate through a potential barrier even though its energy would not allow for the corresponding classical motion. This is known as quantum tunnelling, and manifests itself in a multitude of well-known phenomena. For example, it explains nuclear radioactive decay, fusion reactions in the interior of stars, and electron transport through quantum dots. Tunnelling also is at the heart of many technical applications, for instance it allows for imaging of surfaces on the atomic length scale in scanning tunnelling microscopes.

All the above systems have in common that they essentially represent the very fundamental paradigm of quantum tunnelling: a single particle that penetrates through a single barrier. Now, the team of Hanns-Christoph Nägerl (Institute for Experimental Physics of the University of Innsbruck, Austria), working together with Prof. Andrew Daley (Department of Physics, University of Strathclyde), has directly observed tunnelling dynamics in a much more intriguing system: They see quantum particles transmitting through a whole series of up to five potential barriers under conditions where a single particle could not move. Instead the particles need to help each other via their strong mutual interactions and via an effect known as Bose enhancement.

In their experiment the scientists place a gas of Caesium atoms at extremely low temperatures just above absolute zero temperature into a potential landscape that is deliberately engineered by laser light. This so-called optical lattice forms a regular and perfect structure constituting the multiple tunnelling barriers, similar to a washboard. As temperatures are so low and thus the atoms' kinetic energies are so tiny, the only way to move across the washboard is via tunnelling through the barriers. The tunnelling motion is initiated by applying a directed force onto the atoms along one of the lattice axes, that is, by tilting the washboard. It is now one of the crucial points in the experiment that the physicists control through how many barriers the particles penetrate by the interplay between the interaction and the strength of the force in conjunction with Bose enhancement as a result of the particles' quantum indistinguishability.

Very similar to a massive object moving in the earth's gravitational field, the tunnelling atoms should loose potential energy when they move down the washboard. But where can they deposit this energy in such a perfect and frictionless environment? It's the interaction energy between the atoms when they share the same site of the lattice that compensates for the potential energy. As a result, the physicists found that the tunnelling motion leads to discrete resonances corresponding to the number of barriers the particles penetrate through.

In the future, this work will form a basis to further explore the role of such long-range tunnelling processes for lattice systems with ultracold atoms. The control demonstrated over quantum tunnelling with interacting particles forms an important step in characterising the dynamics of these highly controllable systems. This degree of control opens possibilities to use atoms in a light field as quantum simulators - i.e., to model the behaviour of other systems, including electronic quantum devices, and molecular systems.

credit: Büro für Öffentlichkeitsarbeit und Kulturservice, Universität Innsbruck

  • F. Meinert, M. J. Mark, E. Kirilov, K. Lauber, P. Weinmann, M. Gröbner, A. J. Daley, and H.-C. Nägerl, Observation of many-body long-range tunneling after a quantum quench, Science 344, 1259 (2014). (arXiv:1312.2758)
  • This news story at the University of Innsbruck: ipoint
  • More on quantum simulators and quantum gases
  • Return to research summary page