Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold  



Absolutely Real

Here are some examples of modern research and some of the latest things happening in the field of low-temperature physics.

Better Navigational Systems

Military airplanes currently rely on satellites – known as Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites -- to help their on-board navigation systems. Without updates from GPS, the navigation system can be off by up to two miles after an hour-long flight. The U.S. Department of Defense supports research to make ultra-cold atoms act like high-precision gyroscopes and accelerometers – tools that measure gravity and acceleration. With these on board, the navigational system would no longer require constant GPS updates, and would save airplanes from the possibility of having their systems jammed by an enemy.

To Find Dark matter

Buried 2341 feet deep in the Soudan mine in Minnesota lies a series of sensors that are kept ultra-cold to try and detect dark matter. Dark matter is invisible, but astronomers believe it fills the space between galaxies. No one knows what the dark matter might be made of, but one possibility is a group of particles known as WIMPs -- short for weakly interacting massive particles. The sensors in the mine must be maintained at temperatures near absolute zero so that the heat from the otherwise hard-to-detect WIMPs will stand out.

Fighting Disease

Super-chilled neutrons can be used to map the structure of cell membranes, which can in turn improve disease diagnosis and treatment. At the NIST Center for Neutron Research, neutrons are cooled by liquid hydrogen and then aimed at cells. Computers track how the neutrons bounce off of the cell and then recreate a picture of what it looks like. Scientists can use this imaging technique, for example, to watch how cell membranes ward off harmful microorganisms.

All New Kinds of Matter

In 1995, scientists finally achieved a new state of matter -- a Bose-Einstein condensation -- when rubidium atoms were made so cold and slow that they joined up into one single huge superatom. Rubidium atoms are bosons, a kind of particle that does have a tendency to move together -- so the real surprise came in 2004, when a team led by Deborah Jin at JILA created a "fermionic condensate”. This condensate is made of fermions, a group of fundamental particles that never normally stick together.

Efficient --and Cost-saving -- Air Conditioning

Researchers at NIST study the best mix of refrigerants and lubricants to improve the energy efficiency of the water chillers that cool the nation's large commercial buildings. They have discovered that some lubricants mixed in with the refrigerant can make a dramatic difference: the method could save as much as 1 percent of the electricity used annually by chillers -- which translates to 5.5 million barrels of oil per year.

What's an atom made of?

Particle accelerators study atoms by speeding them up to 90% of the speed of light. The accelerators smash the atoms together, and then scientists study the result of the crash to see what the atoms were made out of. To get so mind-bogglingly fast, many accelerators rely on superconductors that must be kept at temperatures of 2 degrees K (-456 degrees F). The Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Jefferson Lab has the largest refrigeration plant in the world to produce liquid helium to keep the superconductors cold enough.

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