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Silicon chips with ultra-cold atoms

SILICON MICROCHIPS power personal computers and enable high-speed medical imaging. Inside them, electrons move along microscopic wires that form complex electrical circuits. At a major conference organised by the Institute of Physics, a revolutionary new type of microchip in which entire atoms, rather than just electrons, move around circuits was described by Professor Jakob Reichel from the University of Munich. Thousands of atoms hover in a cloud above the surface of the chip, and move along air wires produced by tiny magnetic fields in these `atom chips', — like microscopic magnetic levitation trains floating above a track.

The atom clouds themselves are very special — they are so cold that all of the atoms merge into one `superatom', known as a Bose-Einstein Condensate, which behaves like a wave and exhibits bizarre quantum behaviour.

Bose-Einstein Condensates have just entered the Guinness Book of Records as the coldest ever place — within a few billionths of a degree of the lowest possible temperature, absolute zero.

Using atom chips to move and manipulate Bose-Einstein Condensates could enable the development of `quantum computers', which would exploit unique features of quantum mechanics, and, for certain tasks, be vastly more powerful than the conventional electronic computers available today.

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