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The spin of particles can be manipulated by a magnetic field. This principle is the basic idea behind magnetic resonance imaging as used in hospitals. A surprising effect has now been discovered in the spins of phosphorus atoms coupled to microwaves: If the atoms are excited, they can emit a series of echoes. This opens up new ways of information processing in quantum systems.
Small particles can have an angular momentum that points in a certain direction — the spin. This spin can be manipulated by a magnetic field. This principle, for example, is the basic idea behind magnetic resonance imaging as used in hospitals. An international research team has now discovered a surprising effect in a system that is particularly well suited for processing quantum information: the spins of phosphorus atoms in a piece of silicon, coupled to a microwave resonator. If these spins are cleverly excited with microwave pulses, a so-called spin echo signal can be detected after a certain time — the injected pulse signal is re-emitted as a quantum echo. Surprisingly, this spin echo does not occur only once, but a whole series of echoes can be detected. This opens up new possibilities of how information can be processed with quantum systems.
Let’s break it down –
What is Magnetic Resonance Imaging?
If you have ever seen a movie or a tv show where someone goes in for a scan of their brains or bodies, you will most likely have seen this machine. It can be defined scientifically as a technique for producing images of bodily organs by measuring the response of the atomic nuclei of body tissues to high-frequency radio waves when placed in a strong magnetic field.
Wikipedia also defines it as a medical imaging technique used in radiology to form pictures of the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body. MRI scanners use strong magnetic fields, magnetic field gradients, and radio waves to generate images of the organs in the body.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a large magnet and radio waves to look at organs and structures inside your body. Health care professionals use MRI scans to diagnose a variety of conditions, from torn ligaments to tumors. MRIs are very useful for examining the brain and spinal cord.
What Is A Resonator?
A resonator is a device or system that exhibits resonance or resonant behavior. That is, it naturally oscillates with greater amplitude at some frequencies, called resonant frequencies, than at other frequencies. The oscillations in a resonator can be either electromagnetic or mechanical (including acoustic). Resonators are used to either generate waves of specific frequencies or to select specific frequencies from a signal. Musical instruments use acoustic resonators that produce sound waves of specific tones. Another example is quartz crystals used in electronic devices such as radio transmitters and quartz watches to produce oscillations of very precise frequency.
A cavity resonator is one in which waves exist in a hollow space inside the device. In electronics and radio, microwave cavities consisting of hollow metal boxes are used in microwave transmitters, receivers and test equipment to control frequency, in place of the tuned circuits which are used at lower frequencies. Acoustic cavity resonators, in which sound is produced by air vibrating in a cavity with one opening, are known as Helmholtz resonators.
Without getting too involved in the scientific “mumbo jumbo” let us move on to the rest of the article. I personally find quantum mechanics and computing fascinating. Why didn’t you take it in school then Necromancer? you ask. Well to be honest, If I knew what I know now, I would have. Still though, I am unsure of even that answers veracity.
The experiments were carried out at the Walther-Meissner-Institute in Garching by researchers from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Technical University of Munich, the theoretical explanation was developed at TU Wien (Vienna). Now the joint work has been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.
The echo of quantum spins
“Spin echoes have been known for a long time, this is nothing unusual,” says Prof. Stefan Rotter from TU Wien (Vienna). First, a magnetic field is used to make sure that the spins of many atoms point in the same magnetic direction. Then the atoms are irradiated with an electromagnetic pulse, and suddenly their spins begin to change direction.
However, the atoms are embedded in slightly different environments. It is therefore possible that slightly different forces act on their spins. “As a result, the spin does not change at the same speed for all atoms,” explains Dr. Hans Hübl from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. “Some particles change their spin direction faster than others, and soon you have a wild jumble of spins with completely different orientations.”
I am not going to pretend to understand all of that, or break it down any further. This article would be way too long if I do that. Nonetheless these spins they are referring to I have heard of before, apparently in these conditions, particles behave very strangely. Sometimes in ways that defy normal perceptions of reality. Which is what got me hooked on this.
But it is possible to rewind this apparent chaos — with the help of another electromagnetic pulse. A suitable pulse can reverse the previous spin rotation so that the spins all come together again. “You can imagine it’s a bit like running a marathon,” says Stefan Rotter. “At the start signal, all the runners are still together. As some runners are faster than others, the field of runners is pulled further and further apart over time. However, if all runners were now given the signal to return to the start, all runners would return to the start at about the same time, although faster runners have to cover a longer distance back than slower ones.”
In the case of spins, this means that at a certain point in time all particles have exactly the same spin direction again — and this is called the “spin echo.” “Based on our experience in this field, we had already expected to be able to measure a spin echo in our experiments,” says Hans Hübl. “The remarkable thing is that we were not only able to measure a single echo, but a series of several echoes.”
I will cover these echo ideas in a future article, stay tuned for that.
Before reading further here is a something you should know – “…in a microwave resonator, an electrical circuit in which microwaves can only exist at certain wavelengths.”
The spin that influences itself
At first, it was unclear how this novel effect comes about. But a detailed theoretical analysis now made it possible to understand the phenomenon: It is due to the strong coupling between the two components of the experiment — the spins and the photons in a microwave resonator, an electrical circuit in which microwaves can only exist at certain wavelengths. “This coupling is the essence of our experiment: You can store information in the spins, and with the help of the microwave photons in the resonator you can modify it or read it out,” says Hans Hübl.
The strong coupling between the atomic spins and the microwave resonator is also responsible for the multiple echoes: If the spins of the atoms all point in the same direction in the first echo, this produces an electromagnetic signal. “Thanks to the coupling to the microwave resonator, this signal acts back on the spins, and this leads to another echo — and on and on,” explains Stefan Rotter. “The spins themselves cause the electromagnetic pulse, which is responsible for the next echo.”
The physics of the spin echo has great significance for technical applications — it is an important basic principle behind magnetic resonance imaging. The new possibilities offered by the multiple echo, such as the processing of quantum information, will now be examined in more detail. “For sure, multiple echos in spin ensembles coupled strongly to the photons of a resonator are an exciting new tool. It will not only find useful applications in quantum information technology, but also in spin-based spectroscopy methods,” says Rudolf Gross, co-author and director of the Walther-Meissner-Institute.
In a future article we will discuss the idea behind echoes and reverberation.
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