A leading role for Oxford in large-scale atom interferometry

13 January 2021

A source of laser-cooled strontium atoms to be used in the Atom Interferometry Observatory Network (AION) project

Oxford’s Department of Physics is playing a key role in three of the seven quantum projects supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) including AION: a UK atom interferometer observatory and network.

The AION project brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and PhD students from the particle physics, ultra-cold atom and astronomy communities to develop the technology to build and reap the scientific rewards from the first large-scale atom interferometer in the UK. The funding will support the design of an 10m atom interferometer, leading towards the construction of the instrument in Oxford and paving the way for larger-scale future experiments to be located in the UK.

Ground-breaking research

The programme of research will enable a ground-breaking search for ultra-light dark matter and pave the way for the exploration of gravitational waves in a frequency range previously inaccessible; it will open a new window on the mergers of massive black hole and novel physics in the early universe.

The AION project is a consortium of the University of Birmingham, University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, Kings College London, University of Liverpool, University of Oxford, and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. In addition, the project is in partnership with UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Timing, Birmingham, UK, the MAGIS Collaboration, US and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, US – with members of the AION consortium also contributing to MAGIS, a partner experiment.

Imperial College London is the lead institution of the AION project and Professor Oliver Buchmueller is the lead principal investigator: 'We are delighted with the announcement from UKRI and STFC to fund the novel AION project. AION is a uniquely interdisciplinary mission that will harness cold atom technologies to address key issues in fundamental physics, astrophysics and cosmology that can be realised in the next few decades.’

A new generation of instruments

The University of Oxford team, led by Professors Chris Foot, Ian Shipsey, Daniela Bortoletto, John March-Russell and Dr Elliot Bentine, and AION Project Manager Roy Preece, will develop laser cooling techniques based on the special properties of atomic strontium as well as advanced imaging for both for AION and MAGIS, and theoretical interpretation.

Professor Chris Foot comments: 'The team in Oxford are excited to work with collaborators elsewhere in the UK and in the US to build a new generation of instruments based on a recent advance in matter-wave interferometry with strontium atoms. This programme combines quantum technology from the atomic physics community with expertise in building and operating large-scale instruments from particle physics. A network of such instruments will be an enormously powerful tool for investigating new physics.'

Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics programme

UKRI is supporting seven quantum projects through its Quantum Technologies for Fundamental Physics (QTFP) programme: QSNET; Quantum-enhanced interferometry for New Physics; Quantum Sensors for the Hidden Sector; Determination of Absolute Neutrino Mass using Quantum Technologies; Quantum Simulators for Fundamental Physics; Quantum-enhanced Superfluid Technologies for Dark Matter and Cosmology; and a UK Atom Interferometer Observatory and Network.

Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of the Department of Physics at Oxford, concludes: ‘The cutting-edge interdisciplinary QTFP programme brings together EPSRC and STFC scientists from UK universities, national labs and National Quantum Technology Programme (NQTP) Hubs, with international partners to conduct seven ambitious experiments. Just as quantum computing promises to revolutionise traditional computing, technologies such as quantum sensors have the potential to radically change our approach to understanding the universe.

‘The programme would not have been possible without a compelling science case, the formation of an enthusiastic expert interdisciplinary community, the existence of UKRI’s world-leading National Quantum Technologies Programme, and the vision of Professors Sir Mark Walport (then Chief Executive, UKRI), Mark Thompson (Executive Chair, STFC), Dame Lynn Gladden, (Executive Chair, EPSRC), Sir Peter Knight (Chair, NQTP Strategic Advisory Board) and Ian Walmsley (then Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, University of Oxford). Exciting science awaits!’

Oxford’s Department of Physics is also working on the Quantum Sensors for the Hidden Sector project as well as QUEST-DMC.

Image caption: A source of laser-cooled strontium atoms to be used in the Atom Interferometry Observatory Network (AION) project. Inset (top right) shows atoms passing through a laser beam and emitting blue light. The special features of strontium atoms allow large-scale atom interferometers to be constructed. In the first stage AION will design a 10m tall instrument and collaborate with the MAGIS-100 project this is constructing a 100m tall device at Fermilab in the US. Scaling up to even larger interferometers in the future will provide new instruments for the detection of dark matter and gravity waves in the mid frequency band.