Physicists at the University of Basel have developed a new method that shows them the geometry of an electron. This shows an electron trapped in a quantum dot. (Image credit: University of Basel)


We’ve all seen depictions of atoms in textbooks and usually they’re made up of colorful spheres representing the cluster of protons and neutrons making up its nucleus. It’s not how an atom actually looks, but it’s a solid representation. But thanks to a new method from a group of scientists, we know how a single electron looks in an artificial atom for the first time.


Physicists at the University of Basel have developed a method that allows them to show the probability of an electron being present in a space. It involves the use of quantum dots, which are tiny semiconducting crystals on nanometer scales. This makes for improved control of electron spins, which could act as the smallest information unit in a future quantum computer.


Researchers used a spectroscope to track the energy levels in a quantum dot, seeing how they behave in magnetic fields of varying strength and orientation. This allowed them to calculate the shape of an electron's wave function within the quantum dot, down to scales even smaller than a nanometre. After doing this, researchers gained a better understanding of the correlation between the geometry of electrons and the electron spin, which will be stable for as long as possible and quickly switchable for use as a qubit.


"We are able to not only map the shape and orientation of the electron, but also control the wave function according to the configuration of the applied electric fields. This gives us the opportunity to optimize control of the spins in a very targeted manner," says professor Dominik Zumbühl from the Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel.


So how does this impact future research? It could affect quantum entanglement research since successful entanglement requires the wave functions of two electrons to be oriented along the same plane. Having the ability to control the shape of an electron's wave function could make a big difference in this field. And as mentioned earlier, controlling the spin rate of an electron makes it eligible to be used as a qubit, the smallest unit of information in a quantum computer.


It’s clear there’s more work to be done here, but this groundbreaking discovery could make a major impact on future research and technology. If you want to read more about this method, you can find the published results here.


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