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Scientists detect electrons outside regular orbits

An international team of scientists, including personnel from the Australian National University, has published a paper in the British journal Nature detailing the finding of electrons outside their regular orbits.

The phenomenon, predicted by quantum theory, could be used to develop next-generation electronics based on thin materials and superconductors.

A statement from the ANU said while common knowledge about electrons has them residing in orbits like planets around the Sun, the team had observed electrons momentarily in different, higher energy orbits.

Professor Anatoli Kheifets from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering, who was part of the team, said finding a way to observe this phenomenon had taken 30 years.

“Scientists never thought they could observe such a rare event,” he said. “There is no simple way to look inside a molecule to see what an electron is doing there.”

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Professor Anatoli Kheifets holds a ball that represents the atomic sphere.

The team took a very precise snapshot of pairs of electrons in the hydrogen molecule; they used an X-ray beam to knock one of the electrons out of the molecule, causing its two atoms to separate.

“Because the two electrons in the molecule are entangled, the one that was knocked out carried very precise information about the quantum state of its counterpart,” Prof Kheifets said.

The team found that both electrons in the ground-state orbital momentarily leapt to a higher energy level at the same time, an example of quantum correlation.

“This kind of correlation between electrons is normally too weak to see, but in certain circumstances can lead to remarkable behaviours such as superconductivity, which underpins high-capacity computer memory,” Prof Kheifets said.

“The process of electron correlation in the hydrogen molecule is very rare and weak. Nevertheless, the sensitivity of the experimental technique was so great that it allowed us to very clearly visualise the pair of the electrons in the act, out of their usual character.”

He said the new method for imaging the entangled electrons could be a major boon for the study of technologically important materials, such as superconductors and thin layered structures.

“With a tighter squeeze put on electrons by miniaturisation, their entanglement plays a great part – it’s the physics of the 21st century,” he said.

Photo: courtesy Australian National University

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

 

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