Directed Transport of Atoms in a Hamiltonian Quantum Ratchet

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Science  27 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5957, pp. 1241-1243
DOI: 10.1126/science.1179546

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Moving Cold Atoms with Quantum Ratchets

The nanoscale dimensions of biological motors make them susceptible to thermal noise, but such motors can produce force in one direction by alternating application of an asymmetric potential, or ratchet, with periods of thermal drift in the motion. The quantum version of such motors can operate without dissipation, as long as there is some means to break time-reversal symmetry in the system. Salger et al. (p. 1241) report on a coherent quantum ratchet device consisting of Bose-Einstein condensate cold atoms placed into an asymmetric sawtooth-potential created by optical lattices. Symmetry breaking was accomplished by phase shifts in the driving potentials. As expected for such a quantum ratchet, the current depended on the initial phase of the driving potential.


Classical ratchet potentials, which alternate a driving potential with periodic random dissipative motion, can account for the operation of biological motors. We demonstrate the operation of a quantum ratchet, which differs from classical ratchets in that dissipative processes are absent within the observation time of the system (Hamiltonian regime). An atomic rubidium Bose-Einstein condensate is exposed to a sawtooth-like optical lattice potential, whose amplitude is periodically modulated in time. The ratchet transport arises from broken spatiotemporal symmetries of the driven potential, resulting in a desymmetrization of transporting eigenstates (Floquet states). The full quantum character of the ratchet transport was demonstrated by the measured atomic current oscillating around a nonzero stationary value at longer observation times, resonances occurring at positions determined by the photon recoil, and dependence of the transport current on the initial phase of the driving potential.

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