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Scientists Now Able to Measure Electrons on the Attosecond Scale

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Using a new laser technology, physicists have been able to produce “attosecond” light pulses with high-intensity and high-energy photons.
This detection is the first time scientists have observed such interactions of photons in an attosecond pulse.

The Laboratory for Attosecond Physics (LAP) is a joint research institution between the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU Munich).

Like other research centers focusing their research on the study of the microscopic motions of particles, LAP aims to acquire the capability to observe and control light-matter interactions.

LAP scientists work to develop new optical tools, particularly lasers, that can emit very short light pulses in the range of attoseconds.

What’s an Attosecond?

Attosecond

In the atomic world, time measurements such as seconds are just too long of a period to use as a measurement. The movement of electrons around the nucleus of an atom is so fast that it makes a second seem like a year.

The time associated with the movement of electrons is of the order of the attosecond, 10-18 seconds, or one billionth of a billionth of a second.

To put that into perspective, the distance between one second and an attosecond is the same as one second is to 31 billion years.

To us, this may seem like a negligible measurement of time. In the atomic world, however, it’s long enough for many phenomena to occur.

Although light is the fastest entity in the universe, it still takes time to cross any distance, even at the microscopic level.

Even at the speed of light, it takes a photon of light emitted by the Sun about 8 minutes to reach Earth. On the atomic scale, it would cross the distance of two hydrogen atoms linked together in one attosecond.

Attosecond Pulse Technology Gets a Boost

To investigate microscopic phenomena as fleeting as the motion of electrons, it is necessary to use ultra-short pulses of light at scales of time as short as the attosecond.

Since the early 2000s, research into attosecond science has been centered on producing ultra-bright and ultra-short light pulses to observe the motion of electrons.

Now, LAP scientists, using a new laser technology, have succeeded in producing attosecond light bursts that are both ultra-intense and ultra-short.

For the first time, physicists were able to observe the interaction of attosecond pulses with several high intensity and high energy electrons from an inner atomic shell.

“Experiments in which it is possible to have inner shell electrons interacting with two XUV attosecond pulses are often referred to as the Holy Grail of attosecond physics.” Said Dr. Boris Bergues, lead author of the study. “With two XUV pulses, we would be able to ‘film’ the electron motion in the inner atomic shells without perturbing their dynamics.”

With this breakthrough from LAP, scientists will now have a laser technique that enables them to study the behavior and dynamics of electrons in their orbital shells in real-time, something that was inaccessible until now.

Light is made thanks to the motion of electrons, which is also behind the nervous flows and ion movement that controls the electrical activity in the body.

Understanding how electrons move deep inside the atom could help not only in developing more efficient electronics but also advance the treatment of some diseases.

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