Martin Zwierlein describes his research as “playing with atoms” at temperatures more than a million times colder than interstellar space.
“We’re working with the coldest matter in the universe. At such low temperatures, new things happen and new states of matter appear,” says Zwierlein, an assistant professor in physics and member of the appropriately named MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms.
The physicist describes his work as basic research. But the insights he gleans could also aid scientists’ understanding of a material that could revolutionize our energy systems: high-temperature superconductors.
“In the U.S. we lose about 10 percent of our energy just transporting it [over wires] from A to B,” explains Zwierlein. That’s enough to power some entire countries.
Replacing conventional transmission wires with ones made of high-temperature superconductors, which allow electrical currents to flow without any loss of energy, would solve the problem. But high-temperature superconductors are not well understood, and don’t work at the temperatures necessary for practical applications.
Zwierlein and colleagues may have come up with a model system for understanding these complicated materials. They created a new form of matter – an ultracold gas known as a fermion pair condensate – that is roughly analogous to high-temperature superconductors. The ultracold gas, however, is easier to control and experiment with. As a result, it could help scientists gain a better understanding of super-conductors, which in turn could lead to better superconductors for practical applications like transmitting energy.
“The atoms in our pair condensate walk together in lockstep, hand-in-hand as pairs, to form one giant wave,” says Zwierlein, unlike their counterparts in the air around us that zip around quickly, bump into each other, and essentially behave like tiny billiard balls. The Fermi atoms move more at a snail’s speed, and the gas behaves like a fluid. Actually, it is a superfluid, which can flow without friction like the current in its superconducting cousins. Studying one, you can learn more about the other.
Zwierlein came to MIT from Bonn, Germany, and has stayed because of the people. His colleagues, he says, represent “a whole family tree of atomic physicists.” They include Professors Daniel Kleppner and David Pritchard, who pioneered the study of ultra- cold matter, and Professor Wolfgang Ketterle, who built on that work to create a new form of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Ketterle, who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize for that achievement, was in turn Zwierlein’s thesis advisor.
Zwierlein is proving worthy of his mentors. In 2010, he won several awards, including a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers that he received from President Obama at the White House. “This has been a year I’ll never forget,” he says.