York students’ atom-trapping experiment is a Canadian first

Physics students at York University have become the first undergraduates in the country to carry out the scientifically-daunting task of trapping atoms, as part of an advanced laboratory course.

Two student teams recently trapped atoms using a one-of-a-kind laser optics lab at York. The experiment is part of a new course, Physics 4062/5062 (Atom Trapping Laboratory), offered through York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering for the first time this fall.

"We’re very excited to be the first Canadian university to introduce undergraduates to laser cooling and trapping of neutral atoms," says Professor Anatharaman Kumarakrishnan, who developed the course.

The Optech Incorporated Advanced Optics Laboratory  includes state-of-the-art equipment necessary to control lasers, which cool atoms to super-cold temperatures (1/10,000th of a degree above absolute zero, or approximately –273 C). Students in their third and fourth years work in the lab for about six hours per week and attend lectures on relevant theoretical concepts.

Right: The Optech Incorporated Advanced Optics Laboratory

Over the past decade, atom trapping has emerged as one of the most exciting areas of physics; developments in this field have been recognized by several Nobel prizes in recent years.

"There’s a high demand for students with skills in this area," says Kumarakrishnan. "Techniques related to this field are recognized for their wide-ranging industrial applications."

Nick Cercone, dean of York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, notes that York University has the largest concentration of researchers in this field in Canada. "York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering stands at the forefront of science and engineering research and provides unique opportunities for undergraduates to become engaged in state-of-the-art research efforts," he says.

Graduate and undergraduate students were involved in every stage of the course design, including design of experimental setups, testing of concepts, construction of low-cost lasers for course expansion, and the development of a comprehensive laboratory manual.

"We designed the course with an emphasis on hands-on skills and sophisticated data analysis," Kumarakrishnan says.

Optech, a Toronto-based firm, donated $125,000 towards the lab, a gift that was matched by the Faculty. The donation has also allowed the University to introduce a companion course, Experimental Techniques in Laser Physics.