For years, scientists have looked for ways to cool molecules down to ultracold temperatures, at which point the molecules should slow to a crawl, allowing scientists to precisely control their quantum behavior. This could enable researchers to use molecules as complex bits for quantum computing, tuning individual molecules like tiny knobs to carry out multiple streams of calculations at a time.
While scientists have super-cooled atoms, doing the same for molecules, which are more complex in their behavior and structure, has proven to be a much bigger challenge.
Now MIT physicists have found a way to cool molecules of sodium lithium down to 200 billionths of a Kelvin, just a hair above absolute zero. They did so by applying a technique called collisional cooling, in which they immersed molecules of cold sodium lithium in a cloud of even colder sodium atoms. The ultracold atoms acted as a refrigerant to cool the molecules even further.
Caption: Sympathetic cooling of NaLi molecues (red/yellow) by sodium
atoms (red). The molecules are cooled by reducing the power in the
optical trap (indicated by white circles), allowing the most energetic
sodium atoms to escape and carry away thermal energy.