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Microscope probes atomic wave functions

Posted: 12 Apr 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:microscope? atomic wave? detector?

A team of Dutch and French researchers has built a microscope that can see atomic wave functions.

The team has performed an experiment where they ionised xenon atoms in an electric field and recorded the arrival of the electrons, which are formed on a two-dimensional detector.

Marc Vrakking, group leader of the Dutch team, from the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam, said: "The interference that we see is a manifestation of how quantum mechanical principles determine the wave function of an electron in an atom.

"Our microscope allows us to enlarge structures in the wave function of the atom which exist on a sub-micron scale to dimensions of several centimetres, so that we can see and study them."

Vrakking's group worked with researchers from the Laboratory of Molecular and Ionic Spectroscopy in Villeurbanne, France.

Vrakking described the experiment as similar to Young's double slit experiment in optics: "The resulting interference pattern reveals a quantum mechanical interference between several different paths which the electron can follow between the atom and the detector."

Vrakking says the main interest in these experiments is a fundamental understanding of the wave function of atoms in electric fields. The team believes that the observed patterns will be very sensitive to external perturbations, and that they may be able to use similar experiments to probe electrical or magnetic perturbations.

"The patterns that we form on the detector can be scaled down by electrostatic means and may find applications in lithography and electron microscopy," he said.

The next steps in the team's research will be to try the experiments on hydrogen atoms. The team has picked hydrogen because it consists of only one proton and one electron.

"This means that there is potentially a much larger variety in the kinds of wave functions that can be observed," said Vrakking.

He believes that his team is the only one working in this field: "To the best of our knowledge, we are the only group that is currently active in this area. Other groups working on photoionisation imaging are not active in the regime where the microscopy concept applies.

"Probably the closest group is a French group that has looked at photodetachment of electrons from negative ions. They have seen interesting interference structures in their experiments. But we think photoionisation is dynamically a richer system."

? Sara Sowah

EE Times

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