What is inside an atom, between the nucleus and the electron? Usually there is nothing, but why could there not be other particles too? If the electron orbits the nucleus at a great distance, there is plenty of space in between for other atoms. A "giant atom" can be created, filled with ordinary atoms. All these atoms form a weak bond, creating a new, exotic state of matter at cold temperatures, referred to as "Rydberg polarons".
A team of researchers has now presented this state of matter in the journal "Physical Review Letters". The theoretical work was done at TU Wien (Vienna) and Harvard University, the experiment was performed at Rice University in Houston (Texas).
Two very special fields of atomic physics, which can only be studied at extreme conditions, have been combined in this research project: Bose-Einstein condensates and Rydberg atoms. A Bose-Einstein condensate is a state of matter created by atoms at ultracold temperatures, close to absolute zero. Rydberg atoms are atoms, in which one single electron is lifted into a highly excited state and orbits the nucleus at a very large distance.
[...] First, a Bose-Einstein condensate was created with strontium atoms. Using a laser, energy was transferred to one of these atoms, turning it into a Rydberg atom with a huge atomic radius. The perplexing thing about this atom: the radius of the orbit, on which the electron moves around the nucleus, is much larger than the typical distance between two atoms in the condensate. Therefore the electron does not only orbit its own atomic nucleus, numerous other atoms lie inside its orbit too. Depending on the radius of the Rydberg atom and the density of the Bose-Einstein condensate, as many as 170 additional strontium atoms may be enclosed by the huge electronic orbit.