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Recoil Limit

Definition: a lower limit for the temperature which can be reached with some laser cooling techniques

German: Rückstoßgrenze

Category: quantum optics


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Methods of laser cooling involve the transfer of momentum from light to atoms or ions. The recoil associated with the emission or absorption of a single photon by an atom typically leads to a velocity change of the order of a few cm/s. These discrete velocity changes result in a limit to the reachable temperature of a cloud of atoms or ions in an optical trap.

The recoil limit can be defined as the lowest temperature reachable with laser cooling methods which involve a permanent interaction of the cooled atoms with light. It is given by the equation

$${T_{{\rm{recoil}}}} = \frac{{{{\left( {h/\lambda } \right)}^2}}}{{2\;m\;{k_{\rm{B}}}}}$$

where <$\lambda$> is the wavelength of the light and <$m$> is the mass of the atoms. At this temperature, the thermal energy equals the energy of an atom with a momentum equal to the photon momentum. Typical values for the recoil limit of atoms are of the order of 1 μK.

The recoil limit can be approached (although not fully reached) with polarization gradient cooling (→ Sisyphus cooling). However, temperatures below the recoil limit have been achieved with velocity-selective coherent population trapping, where atoms become trapped in an electronic state where they do no longer interact with light. This shows that the recoil limit is not a fundamental limit which applies to all laser cooling methods.


[1]A. Aspect et al., “Laser cooling below the one-photon recoil energy by velocity-selective coherent population trapping”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 61 (7), 826 (1988), DOI:10.1103/PhysRevLett.61.826
[2]M. Kasevich and S. Chu, “Laser cooling below a photon recoil with three-level atoms”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 69 (12), 1741 (1992), DOI:10.1103/PhysRevLett.69.1741
[3]H. Katori et al., “Magneto-optical trapping and cooling of strontium atoms down to the photon recoil temperature”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 82 (6), 1116 (1999), DOI:10.1103/PhysRevLett.82.1116

See also: Doppler limit, laser cooling, photons

Questions and Comments from Users


Does photon recoil means that a particle emits a photon?

The author's answer:

Not necessarily. A recoil also occurs when a photon is absorbed or scattered.

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