A guide to positronium

Positronium (Ps) is a hybrid of matter and antimatter. Made of just two particles – an electron and a positron – the atomic structure of Ps is similar to hydrogen. The ultimate aim of our experiments at UCL is to observe deflection of a Ps beam due to gravity, as nobody knows if antimatter falls up or down.

In this post, we outline how we recently managed to guide positronium using a quadrupole. Because the Ps atom doesn’t have a heavy nucleus, it’s extremely light and will typically move very, very quickly (~100 km/s). A refinement of the guiding techniques we used can, in principle, be applied to decelerate Ps atoms to speeds that are more suitable for studying gravity.

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Point-of-view of a Ps atom entering a quadrupole guide

Before guiding positronium we have to create some. Positrons emitted from a radioisotope of sodium are trapped in a combination of electric and magnetic fields. They are ejected from the trap and implanted into a thin-film of mesoporous silica, where they bind to electrons to form Ps atoms; the network of tiny pores provides a way for these to get out and into vacuum.

The entire Ps distribution is emitted from the film in a time-window of just a few billionths of a second.  This is well matched to our pulsed lasers, which we use to optically excite the atoms to Rydberg levels (high principal quantum number, n). If we didn’t excite the Ps then the electron-positron pairs would annihilate into gamma-ray photons in much less than a millionth of a second, and each would be unlikely to travel more than a few cm. However, in the excited states self-annihilation is almost completely suppressed and they can, therefore, travel much further.

Each Rydberg level contains many sublevels that have almost the same internal energy. This means that for a given n its sublevels can all be populated using a narrow range of laser wavelengths. But if an electric field is applied the sublevels are shifted. This so-called “Stark shift” comes from the electric dipole moment, i.e., the distribution of electric charge within the atom. The dipole is different for each sublevel and it can either be aligned or anti-aligned to the electric field. This results in a range of both positive and negative energy shifts, broadening the overall spectral line. Tuning the laser wavelength can now be used to select a particular sublevel. Or rather, to select a Rydberg-Stark state with a particular electric dipole moment. Stark broadening is demonstrated in the plot below. [For higher electric fields the individual Stark states can be resolved.]

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Stark broadening of n=12 Ps in an electric field.

The Stark effect provides a way to manipulate the motion of neutral atoms using electric fields. As an atom moves between regions of different electric field strength its internal energy will shift according to its electric dipole moment. However, because the total energy must be conserved the kinetic energy will also change. Depending on whether the atom experiences a positive or negative Stark shift, increasing fields will either slow it down or speed it up. The Rydberg-Stark states can ,therefore, be broadly grouped as either low-field-seeking (LFS) or high-field-seeking (HFS). The force exerted by the electric field is much smaller than would be experienced by a charged particle. Nevertheless, this effect has been demonstrated as a useful tool for deflecting, guiding, decelerating, and trapping Rydberg atoms and polar molecules.

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Rydberg positronium source, lasers, gamma-ray detectors, and quadrupole guide.

A quadrupole is a device made from a square array of parallel rods.  Positive voltage is applied to one diagonal pair and negative to the other. This creates an electric field that is zero along the centre but which is very large directly between neighbouring rods. The effect this has on atoms in LFS states is that when they drift away from the middle into the high fields they slow down, and eventually turn around and head back towards the centre, i.e., they are guided. On the other hand, atoms in HFS states are steered away from the low-field region and out to the side of the quadrupole.

Stark
Electric field strength and trajectory calculation for low-field-seeking (blue),  high-field-seeking (red), and unaffected (green) Rydberg-Stark states of positronium in a quadrupole guide.

Using gamma-ray detectors at either end of a 40 cm long quadrupole we measured how many Rydberg Ps atoms entered and how many were transported through it. With the guide switched off some atoms from all states were transmitted. However, with the voltages switched on there was a five-fold increase in the number of low-field-seeking atoms getting through, whereas the high-field-seeking atoms could no longer pass at all.

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The number of Rydberg Ps atoms entering (red) and passing all the way through (blue) the quadrupole guide.

A large part of why we chose to use positronium for our gravity studies is that it’s electrically neutral. As the electromagnetic force is so much stronger than gravity we, therefore, avoid otherwise overwhelming effects from stray electric fields. However, by exciting Ps to Rydberg-Stark states with large electric dipole moments we reintroduce the same problem. Nonetheless, it should be possible to exploit the LFS states to decelerate the atoms to low speeds, and then we can use microwaves to drive them to states with zero dipole moment. This will give us a cold Rydberg Ps distribution that is insensitive to electric fields and which can be used for gravitational deflection measurements.


Our article “Electrostatically guided Rydberg positronium” has been published in Physical Review Letters.

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