CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 6, 2010 -- Carbon nanotubes, long touted for applications in materials and electronics, may also be the stuff of atomic-scale black holes.
Physicists at Harvard University have found that a high-voltage nanotube can cause cold atoms to spiral inward under dramatic acceleration before disintegrating violently. Their experiments, the first to demonstrate something akin to a black hole at atomic scale, are described in the current issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.
"On a scale of nanometers, we create an inexorable and destructive pull similar to what black holes exert on matter at cosmic scales," says Lene Vestergaard Hau, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics at Harvard. "As importantly for scientists, this is the first merging of cold-atom and nanoscale science, and it opens the door to a new generation of cold atom experiments and nanoscale devices."
Hau and co-authors Anne Goodsell, Trygve Ristroph, and Jene A. Golovchenko laser-cooled clouds of one million rubidium atoms to just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. The physicists then launched this millimeter-long atomic cloud towards a suspended carbon nanotube, located some two centimeters away and charged to hundreds of volts.
The vast majority of the atoms passed right by the wire, but those that came within a micron of it -- roughly 10 atoms in every million-atom cloud -- were inescapably attracted, reaching high speeds as they spiraled toward the nanotube.
"From a start at about 5 meters per second, the cold atoms reach speeds of roughly 1,200 meters per second, or more than 2,700 miles per hour, as they circle the nanotube," says Goodsell, a graduate student on the project and now a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Harvard. "As part of this tremendous acceleration, the temperature corresponding to the atoms' kinetic energy increases from 0.1 degrees Kelvin to thousands of degrees Kel
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