BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY
Ion interferometers will be a completely new type of device, utilizing the quantum-wave nature of matter to detect electromagnetic fields with unprecedented sensitivity. In an ion interferometer a laser-cooled gas of atoms will interact with a pair of laser beams which will strip an electron off of each atom to create positively charged ions. The ions will then pass through a set of three precisely tuned laser beams that will split the quantum wave of each ion, send both pieces of the wave along a different path, and then bring the two halves of the quantum wave together and cause them to interfere with each other. By measuring the resulting interference, the fields present in the apparatus can then be determined. Ion interferometers will be functionally similar to the optical interferometers used in applications such as inertial navigation of aircraft, the detection of chemical spectral signatures, and the search for gravity waves generated by colliding black holes. However, the electrostatic charge of the ions will make ion interferometers sensitive to electric and magnetic fields which optical interferometers cannot detect. This new approach should result in a device that can detect electrostatic fields thousands of times smaller and with thousands of times finer precision than any previous device.
The applications of such a precise field sensor are numerous. For example, these devices will be used to search for deviations from the currently accepted theories of electromagnetism and to search for a tiny amount of previously undetected rest mass that photons of light might possess. Properties of electronic materials such as superconductors and semiconductors, as well as nano-structures will be studied by using the ions to induce minute electric currents and to measure the resulting fields generated just outside of the solid material. In addition, the technology developed in the process of realizing the first ion interferometer will have impact in other fields. For example, the slow ion beam techniques may improve the precision of ion implantation in the manufacture of semiconductor chips, and laser cooling and photo-ionization techniques developed in this project could improve the accuracy of atomic clocks. Because this pioneering work will be carried out at an institution with a reputation for excellent undergraduate science education and with an emphasis on undergraduate involvement in research, this project will also help train a new generation of scientists.