Quantum-State Controlled Chemical Reactions of Ultracold Potassium-Rubidium Molecules

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Science  12 Feb 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5967, pp. 853-857
DOI: 10.1126/science.1184121

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Colliding in the Cold

Chemical reactions occur through molecular collisions, which, in turn, are governed by the distributions of energy in each colliding partner. What happens when molecules are cooled so that they no longer have sufficient energy to collide? Ospelkaus et al. (p. 853; see the Perspective by Hutson) explored this question by preparing a laser-cooled sample of potassium rubidium (KRb) diatomics with barely any residual energy in any form (translational, rotational, vibrational, or electronic). By monitoring heat release over time, evidence was gathered for exothermic atom exchange reactivity through quantum mechanical tunneling. As predicted by theory, these reactions were exquisitely sensitive to the molecular states, with rates changing by orders of magnitude on varying minor factors such as nuclear spin orientation.


How does a chemical reaction proceed at ultralow temperatures? Can simple quantum mechanical rules such as quantum statistics, single partial-wave scattering, and quantum threshold laws provide a clear understanding of the molecular reactivity under a vanishing collision energy? Starting with an optically trapped near–quantum-degenerate gas of polar 40K87Rb molecules prepared in their absolute ground state, we report experimental evidence for exothermic atom-exchange chemical reactions. When these fermionic molecules were prepared in a single quantum state at a temperature of a few hundred nanokelvin, we observed p-wave–dominated quantum threshold collisions arising from tunneling through an angular momentum barrier followed by a short-range chemical reaction with a probability near unity. When these molecules were prepared in two different internal states or when molecules and atoms were brought together, the reaction rates were enhanced by a factor of 10 to 100 as a result of s-wave scattering, which does not have a centrifugal barrier. The measured rates agree with predicted universal loss rates related to the two-body van der Waals length.

  • * These authors contributed equally to this work.

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