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UK universities partner with US lab to build a new quantum experiment


Fermilab Director Lia Merminga and executive chair of the STFC Mark Thomson sign the agreement. @ Ryan Postel, Fermilab

A UK consortium led by Imperial physicists has signed an agreement with Fermilab in the US to build a 100-meter-long quantum experiment.

The Matter-wave Atomic Gradiometer Interferometric Sensor (MAGIS-100) experiment is currently under construction at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). It will enable scientists to demonstrate the superposition of atoms and advance the search for ultralight dark-matter particles.

In a new agreement, UK institutions supported by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) have agreed to provide vital expertise and support to help the experiment probe the mysteries of quantum physics, dark matter and more.

Imperial leads the Atom Interferometer Observatory and Network (AION) in the UK, and signed the deal on behalf of the network, which also includes the Universities of Liverpool, Cambridge and Oxford.

Principal Investigator for AION Professor Oliver Buchmueller, from the Department of Physics at Imperial, said: “AION members have been involved in MAGIS-100 from the start, so it’s exciting to see the partnership formalised.

“The US and UK are well placed to share expertise for the goal of exploring and progressing quantum technologies that can answer some of the most intriguing questions in physics. MAGIS-100, in concert with a planned interferometer in the UK, will allow us to explore parts of physics that no technology can currently see.”

Dr Lia Merminga, Director of Fermilab, said: “It is exciting to see us expand our long and celebrated partnerships with UK institutions to new scientific domains, with the highly innovative MAGIS-100 experiment. Our UK partners participate in the design, construction and delivery of the detection system for the interferometer and will also participate in the commissioning and data analysis of the experiment.”

Pioneering technology

MAGIS-100 is an ‘atom interferometry’ experiment that will be mounted in a vertical access shaft at Fermilab. Scientists will cool strontium atoms to close to absolute zero temperature and drop them down a 100-meter-long vacuum tube where they pass through laser light that will cause them to move at two different velocities simultaneously.

The team will then measure and compare signals from the atoms to examine things such as atomic superpositions and deviations that could be caused by elusive dark-matter particles interacting with the atoms.

Scientists hope that the research will also lay the foundation for future gravitational wave detectors and research by pioneering advanced sensor technology.

AION collaborators are working with US universities to develop several optics components for MAGIS-100. They are providing the cameras that will record interference patterns of fluorescent light emitted by strontium atoms hit by laser light as well as critical optical components and data systems. They will also participate in the commissioning and data analysis of the experiment.

Fermilab’s MAGIS-100 collaborators, with their know-how and experience in planning, constructing and running large-scale experiments, are working with AION collaborators to scale up cold-atom interferometry, which started as small, university-based experiments.

Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of STFC, said: “This initiative is an exciting opportunity, both for the UK and the US, to collaborate in new technologies for fundamental science. There is huge potential in applying quantum technologies to our scientific mission to uncover the secrets of the universe.”

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