Laser-Cooled Atoms: Helium

Element: Helium (He)

Atomic Number: 2

Mass: two stable isotopes, 3 and 4 amu.

Laser cooling wavelength: 1083 nm

Doppler cooling limit: 38 μK

(It should be noted, though, that despite the low temperature, laser-cooled helium has a relatively high velocity– that Doppler limit corresponds to an average velocity that’s just about the same as for sodium at 240 μK. This is because temperature is a measure of kinetic energy, and helium is much, much lighter than any of the other laser-cooled elements.)

Chemical classification: Noble gas, part of column VIII of the periodic table. Doesn’t react with anything, so poses much less danger to scientists than any of the alkalis. And, of course, it’s a colorless gas, so you get a cartoon of balloons rather than a picture of a sample of helium.

Other properties of interest: Helium is not cooled in its true ground state, because the laser wavelength required is beyond current technology. Instead, it’s cooled starting from its lowest excited state, which sits about 20eV above the ground state. This state has a lifetime of essentially forever, and can be treated as an effective ground state for laser cooling, using a transition to the next state up. The huge internal energy means that each atom is like a little bomb, and will release that 20eV in a collision with another atom, a metal surface, or pretty much anything else. This produces an electron and an ion, either of which can be detected with very high efficiency, and is one of the principal diagnostics for laser cooling of He*.

History: Helium was laser cooled and trapped for the first time in 1992, part of a sort of second wave of laser cooled systems after a decade of playing around with alkali metals. Metastable trapping in general has always been kind of a niche thing, and only a handful of groups ever did He*– one in France, one in Japan, one in the Netherlands, and maybe another one or two I’m forgetting.

The French group did some really neat experiments in helium with VSCPT– “Velocity Selective Coherent Population Trapping.” This is a clever trick using lasers of carefully chosen frequency to create a “dark” state where atoms won’t absorb light, provided they’re moving at a very particular velocity. The atoms interact with the lasers for a while, until they reach the appropriate velocity, then get “trapped” in the dark state, producing a sample of atoms at a particular velocity with an extremely narrow width in velocity. It was a big Thing for a while in the mid-90′s, but I haven’t heard much about it since BEC came around.

Amazingly, given its propensity for blasting electrons out of things, Bose-Einstein condensates of metastable helium were made by both the French and Dutch groups around 2001, and since then by a different technique in John Doyle’s group at Harvard. This is possible because of a quantum effect: the principal ionizing collision mechanism between two helium atoms in the same spin state requires one of them to flip an electron spin, which can’t happen easily– this reduces the collision rate by a factor of something like 100,000, making BEC possible.

The metastability offers some nice properties for quantum optics experiments, chiefly that you can do position-sensitive detection by just dropping them onto a charged surface. The laser cooling wavelength is a little inconvenient, though, and making the metastables is kind of a hassle, so it’s never been a really popular system.

Random fun things: Someone from one of the Dutch groups once told me that the had a local in-joke about how metastable helium could knock an electron loose from a dead cow, if you could get one in the vacuum chamber. It might be funnier in Dutch.

Art: The cartoon version of helium is a levitating hipster. Its entry in the Comic Book Periodic Table is two utterly daft pages from a Thor comic. And, of course, it figures prominently in that Pixar movie


  1. #1 CatMat
    August 21, 2013

    Cool :-)

    If the wavelength required to do the laser cooling at the He true ground state is related to the energy difference between that and the first excited state (~20 eV), isn’t the wavelength (~62nm) required nowadays readily achievable with free-electron lasers?

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    August 21, 2013

    I don’t know all that much about free electron lasers, but my impression is that they’re very large, expensive, and generally pulsed, none of which are all that good for laser cooling. I know a guy at ODU who was working on something with the FEL at Jefferson Lab– I think using it as a kind of dipole trap– but I don’t recall the details, and it’s been a couple of years.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    August 21, 2013

    One of the coolest things about helium is the remarkably different behavior of the two isotopes. He-4 is a boson, but He-3 is a fermion, which means that you have to get to much lower temperatures (about three orders of magnitude) to get superfluid He-3 compared to He-4. You also, obviously, can’t get a Bose-Einstein condensate out of He-3 (you can, in theory, get a Fermi-Dirac condensate, but I don’t know offhand if He-3 was the isotope used in that experiment). It’s also relatively easy to separate out the isotopes by fractional distillation (He-3, being lighter, has a lower boiling point).

    The large mass ratio also is of astrophysical interest. Normally, on the order of one helium atom out of 10^4 is the He-3 isotope. But He-3 can be selectively accelerated, and there is a class of solar flares which can produce He-3/He-4 abundance ratios of order 1.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    August 22, 2013

    They have, in fact, cooled helium-3 to degeneracy, by sympathetic cooling with a helium-4 BEC.

    This reminds me, though, that I forgot one of the very coolest laser-cooled helium experiments: Zheng-Tian Lu’s group at Argonne has measured the charge radii of helim-6 and helium-8 nuclei by precision spectroscopy of laser-cooled samples of those unstable isotopes. Which is just amazing stuff, and I’m kicking myself for forgetting about it.