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Like soft serve ice cream, beams of atoms and molecules now come with a swirl.

Scientists already knew how to dish up spiraling beams of light or electrons, known as vortex beams (SN: 1/14/11). Now, the first vortex beams of atoms and molecules are on the menu, researchers report in the Sept. 3 Science.

Vortex beams made of light or electrons have shown promise for making special types of microscope images and for transmitting information using quantum physics (SN: 8/5/15). But vortex beams of larger particles such as atoms or molecules are so new that the possible applications aren’t yet clear, says physicist Sonja Franke-Arnold of the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who was not involved with the research. “It’s maybe too early to really know what we can do with it.”

In quantum physics, particles are described by a wave function, a wavelike pattern that allows scientists to calculate the probability of finding a particle in a particular place (SN: 6/8/11). But vortex beams’ waves don’t slosh up and down like ripples on water. Instead, the beams’ particles have wave functions that move in a corkscrewing motion as a beam travels through space. That means the beam carries a rotational oomph known as orbital angular momentum. “This is something really very strange, very nonintuitive,” says physicist Edvardas Narevicius of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

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