Elementary motion

Protons caught in action

Published: Friday 31 March 2006

scientists have caught the ultra-swift subatomic particles called protons in action. The feat, accomplished by a team of researchers from the Imperial College in the uk , opens a new window to fundamental scientific processes.

The breakthrough was achieved using hydrogen and methane molecules. It will provide opportunities to scientists for a more detailed study and greater control of molecules, particularly organic molecules that are the building blocks of life. The study appeared in the March 3 issue of Science (Vol 311, No 5765).

We are very excited by these results, not only because we have 'watched' motion occurring faster than was previously possible, but because we have achieved this using a compact and simple technique that will make such study accessible to scientists around the world," says Sarah Baker, the lead author of the study.

The scientists used a specially built laser system at the university's Blackett Laboratory Laser Consortium to produce extremely brief pulses of light. The laser exerted an oscillating electromagnetic force on the electrons surrounding the protons, repeatedly tearing them from the molecule and driving them back into it. This caused the electrons to emit x-rays, whose intensity was proportional to how far the protons moved between each oscillation of the electromagnetic field.

The Imperial College scientists think that control of subatomic particles underpins an array of future technologies, such as quantum computing and fabrication of nano-scale materials.

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