Ejecting electrons –
Quantum particles, such as electrons, are volatile entities, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Movements of electrons in their atomic orbitals last for just a few attoseconds. One attosecond is one billionth of one billionth of a second. What exactly the elementary particles do in the atoms’ atmosphere is, currently, largely unknown. It is, however, clearly understood that one cannot determine both the momentum and location of a particle at the same time. Consequently, the quantum mechanical motion of these elementary particles can be described in terms of a cloud called the “probability density of the particles” subject to rapid pulsation following an excitation.
Now, for the first time, the international team at the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics (LAP) have succeeded in observing how an electron cloud moves with time when one of the electrons in an atom is ejected by a pulse of light. The research collaboration included physicists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics at Garching, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich, the King Saud University in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), the Argonne National Laboratory (U.S.) and the University of California, Berkeley (U.S.).
In their experiments, the physicists allowed laser pulses in the visible range of the spectrum to encounter krypton atoms. The light pulses, lasting less than four femtoseconds, in each case ejected an electron from the outer shells of the atoms. A femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second. Once a laser pulse has knocked an electron out of an atom, the atom becomes a positively charged ion. At the point where the electron has left the atom, a positively charged hole develops inside the ion. Quantum mechanically, this free space then continues to pulsate inside the atom as a so-called quantum beat.
The physicists could now directly observe, and virtually photograph, this pulsation using a second ultraviolet light pulse, lasting only some 150 attoseconds. It turned out that the position of the hole inside the ion, i.e., the positively charged location, moved back and forth between an elongated, club-like shape and a compact, contracted shape, with a cycle period of only around 6 femtoseconds. “Thus, for the first time ever, we succeeded in directly observing the change occurring in the charge distribution inside an atom,” explains Dr. Eleftherios Goulielmakis, research group leader in Professor Krausz' team.
“Our experiments have given us a unique real-time view of the micro-cosmos,” explains Ferenc Krausz. “Using attosecond light flashes, we have for the first time recorded quantum-mechanical processes inside an ionised atom.” The findings of the LAP researchers help to understand the dynamics of elementary particles outside the atomic nucleus. In more complex (molecular) systems this kind of split-second dynamics is primarily responsible for the sequence of biological and chemical processes. A more precise understanding of this dynamics could in the future lead to a better understanding of the microscopic origin of currently incurable diseases, or to a gradual acceleration in the speed of electronic data processing towards the ultimate limit of electronics. (Thorsten Naeser/MPQ)
More high-resolution picture material available on:
“Real-time observation of valence electron motion”,
Eleftherios Goulielmakis, Zhi-Heng Loh, Adrian Wirth, Robin Santra, Nina Rohringer, Vladislav S. Yakovlev, Sergey Zherebtsov, Thomas Pfeifer, Abdallah M. Azzeer, Matthias F. Kling, Stephen R. Leone & Ferenc Krausz
Nature online, August 5, 2010
Dr. Eleftherios Goulielmakis
Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Garching
Phone: +49 (0) 89 / 32 905-632