Advancements in Molecular Physics: Populating and Stabilizing Field-Linked Tetratomic Molecules

In a groundbreaking development, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have achieved the feat of populating and stabilizing a new type of molecule known as field-linked tetratomic molecules. These fragile “supermolecules” can only exist at ultracold temperatures and their existence was previously only theoretical. This achievement is not only a significant milestone in molecular physics but also a major step forward in the study of exotic ultracold matter. The results of this research are published in the prestigious journal Nature.

Around two decades ago, American theoretical physicist John Bohn and his colleagues predicted the possibility of binding between polar molecules. These molecules, when they carry an asymmetrically distributed charge or polarity, can combine in an electric field to form weakly bound supermolecules. The behavior of these polar molecules can be likened to compass needles inside a hard shell – they experience a stronger attraction to each other than the Earth’s magnetic field and point towards each other instead of aligning north. Similarly, under specific conditions, polar molecules can form a unique bound state through electrical forces. This bound state is weaker than typical chemical bonds but has a much longer reach. These supermolecules share a bond length that is several hundred times longer than traditionally bound molecules, exhibiting a long-range nature. The long-range nature of supermolecules makes them highly sensitive to changes in the parameters of the electric field, showcasing a phenomenon known as “field-linked resonance.” The ability to flexibly vary the shape and size of the molecules with a microwave field opens up exciting possibilities in the study of molecular physics.

Ultracold polyatomic molecules have a rich internal structure that offers new opportunities in cold chemistry, precision measurements, and quantum information processing. However, their complexity compared to diatomic molecules poses a significant challenge for conventional cooling techniques. The researchers at the “NaK Lab” at MPQ have made pioneering discoveries in recent years that have overcome this cooling challenge. In 2021, they developed a novel cooling technique using a high-power rotating microwave field, setting a new low-temperature record. They achieved temperatures as low as 21 billionths of a degree above absolute zero (-273.15 degree Celsius). Building upon this achievement, they succeeded in creating the conditions necessary to observe the signature of binding between these molecules in scattering experiments, providing the first indirect evidence of these long-predicted exotic constructs. Now, with the latest breakthrough, there is even direct evidence as the researchers have been able to create and stabilize these supermolecules in their experiment.

The imaging of these newly created supermolecules revealed their p-wave symmetry, a unique feature crucial to the realization of topological quantum materials. Topological quantum materials play a significant role in fault-tolerant quantum computation, making these findings highly relevant in the field of quantum physics. The method developed by the researchers is applicable to a wide range of molecular species, paving the way for exploration into a much higher variety of ultracold polyatomic molecules. In the future, this technique could lead to the creation of even larger and longer-living molecules, which would have implications in precision metrology or quantum chemistry. The close collaboration between the researchers at MPQ and CAS has been instrumental in achieving these findings, and their next goal is to further cool these bosonic supermolecules to form a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The formation of a BEC, where the molecules move together collectively, holds important potential for advancing our fundamental understanding of quantum physics.

The successful population and stabilization of field-linked tetratomic molecules mark a significant breakthrough in molecular physics. This achievement opens up new avenues of research in the study of ultracold matter and offers exciting prospects in the field of quantum physics. The collaboration between experimentalists and theorists has paved the way for groundbreaking discoveries and has the potential to revolutionize various fields, including cold chemistry, precision measurements, and quantum information processing. As researchers continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, we can expect further advancements in molecular physics and a deeper understanding of the fascinating world of ultracold matter.


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