Photo of a Single Trapped Atom is Truly Impressive

Photo of a Single Trapped Atom is Truly Impressive

It looks impresive when zoomed in.

At the very centre of the image above is something incredible – a single, positively-charged strontium atom, suspended in motion by electric fields.Not only is this an incredibly rare sight, it’s also difficult to wrap your head around the fact that this tiny point of blue light is a building block of matter.

Tiny specks of energy just like this one are at the centre of so much of the stuff around us, and the thought that we can see this one makes our hearts hurt.

Zoom in close on the center of the picture above, and you can spot something you perhaps never thought you’d be able to see: a single atom. Here is a close-up if, you’re having trouble:)

Zoom view of Single Trapped Atom
Zoom view of Single Trapped Atom

The image was captured by physicist David Nadlinger from the University of Oxford, and it’s been awarded the overall prize in the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council photo competition.


To give you a little perspective on the size of this set-up, the atom is being held in place by electric fields emanating from those two metal needles on either side of it.

The distance between them is about 2 millimetres (0.08 inch).

The atom is being illuminated by a blue-violet laser. The energy from the laser causes the atom to emit photons which Nadlinger could capture on camera using a long exposure.

The whole thing is housed in an ultra-high vacuum chamber and dramatically cooled to keep the atom still. Nadlinger took this photo through the window of the vacuum chamber.

“It’s exciting to find a picture that resonates with other people that shows what I spend my days and nights working on,” Nadlinger told . The best part, to him, was “the opportunity to excite people about my research, more than winning a competition.”

Nadlinger traps atoms as part of his research on quantum computing. The laser light causes the atom to emit photons, which could be collected using a longer exposure. He took the photo through a window into the vacuum of the ion trap.

Judges selected the photo from more than 100 entries that receive EPSRC funding—the EPSRC is the main funder of physical science research in the United Kingdom. Here are some of our other favorites.

Screening the different shapes of certain polymers. By Mahetab Amer - University of Nottingham
Screening the different shapes of certain polymers. By Mahetab Amer – University of Nottingham
A colorized image of a biodegradable microbowl that could potentially deliver drugs more efficiently. By Tayo Sanders II - University of Oxford (Image via EPSRC)
A colorized image of a biodegradable microbowl that could potentially deliver drugs more efficiently. By Tayo Sanders II – University of Oxford (Image via EPSRC)



'In a kitchen far far away...' (The fluid instability patterns on top of a soap bubble) by Li Shen, Imperial College London
‘In a kitchen far far away…’ (The fluid instability patterns on top of a soap bubble) by Li Shen, Imperial College London



An unprocessed transmission electron microscope image of a gas core surrounded by a bio-compatible shell. By Estelle Beguin - University of Oxford (Image: EPSRC)
An unprocessed transmission electron microscope image of a gas core surrounded by a bio-compatible shell. By Estelle Beguin – University of Oxford (Image: EPSRC)
A robot taking a selfie. By Luke Cramphorn - University of Bristol
A robot taking a selfie. By Luke Cramphorn – University of Bristol
'Building blocks for a lighter future' by Sam Catchpole-Smith, University of Nottingham
‘Building blocks for a lighter future’ by Sam Catchpole-Smith, University of Nottingham

See all the winners here.

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