Cold atoms for new physics

3 May 2023

On 13 and 14 March CERN hosted an international workshop on atom interferometry and the prospects for future large-scale experiments employing this quantum-sensing technique. The workshop had some 300 registered participants, of whom about half participated in person. As outlined in a keynote introductory colloquium by Mark Kasevich (Stanford), one of the pioneers of the field, this quantum sensing technology holds great promise for making ultra-sensitive measurements in fundamental physics. Like light interferometry, atom interferometry involves measuring interference patterns, but between atomic wave packets rather than light waves. Interactions between coherent waves of ultralight bosonic dark matter and Standard Model particles could induce an observable shift in the interference phase, as could the passage of gravitational waves.

Atom interferometry is a well-established concept that can provide exceptionally high sensitivity, e.g., to inertial/gravitational effects. Experimental designs take advantage of features used by state-of-the-art atomic clocks in combination with established techniques for building inertial sensors. This makes atom interferometry an ideal candidate to hunt for physics beyond the Standard Model such as waves of ultralight bosonic dark matter, or to measure gravitational waves in a frequency range around 1 Hz that is inaccessible to laser interference experiments on Earth, such as LIGO, Virgo and KAGRA, or the upcoming space-borne experiment LISA. As discussed during the workshop, measurements of gravitational waves in this frequency range could reveal mergers of black holes with masses intermediate between those accessible to laser interferometers, casting light on the formation of the supermassive black holes known to inhabit the centres of galaxies. Atom interferometer experiments can also explore the limits of quantum mechanics and its interface with gravity, for example by measuring a gravitational analogue of the Aharonov-Bohm effect.

A deep shaft at Point 4 of the LHC is a promising location for an atom interferometer with a vertical baseline of over 100 m

Although the potential of atom interferometers for fundamental scientific measurements was the principal focus of the meeting, it was also emphasised that technologies based on the same principles also have wide-ranging practical applications. These include gravimetry, geodesy, navigation, time-keeping and Earth observation from space, providing, for example, a novel and sensitive technique for monitoring the effects of climate change through measurements of the Earth’s gravitational field.

Several large atom interferometers with a length of 10m already exist, for example at Stanford University, or are planned, for example in Hanover (VLBAI), Wuhan and at Oxford University (AION). However, many of the proposed physics measurements require next-generation setups with a length of 100m, and such experiments are under construction at Fermilab (MAGIS), in France (MIGA) and in China (ZAIGA). The Atomic Interferometric Observatory and Network (AION) collaboration is evaluating possible sites in the UK and at CERN. In this context, a recent conceptual feasibility study supported by the CERN Physics Beyond Colliders study group concluded that a deep shaft at Point 4 of the LHC is a promising location for an atom interferometer with a vertical baseline of over 100 m. The March workshop provided a forum for discussing such projects, their current status, future plans and prospective sensitivities.

Looking further ahead, participants discussed the prospects for one or more km-scale atom interferometers, which would provide the maximal sensitivity possible with a terrestrial experiment to search for ultralight dark matter and gravitational waves. It was agreed that the global community interested in such experiments would work together towards establishing an informal proto-collaboration that could develop the science case for such facilities, provide a forum for exchanging ideas how to develop the necessary technological advances and develop a roadmap for their realisation.

A highlight of the workshop was a poster session that provided an opportunity for 30 early-career researchers to present their ideas and current work on projects exploiting the quantum properties of cold atoms and related topics. The liveliness of this session showed how this interdisciplinary field at the boundaries between atomic physics, particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology is inspiring the next generation of researchers. These researchers may form the core of the team that will lead atom interferometers to their full potential.

Further reading

I Alonso et al. 2022 EPJ Quant.Technol 9 30
G Arduini et al. 2023 arXiv:2304.00614
L Badurina et al. 2020 JCAP 5 011
C Overstreet et al. 2021 Science 375 226



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