QUEST Excellence Cluster gets underway

Research on the quantum limit begins

May 23, 2008

Today, on 23 May 2008, the Hannover QUEST Excellence Cluster (Center for Quantum Engineering and Space-Time Research), has officially started its work. In the four areas of quantum engineering, quantum sensors, space-time research and novel technologies, around 60 new scientists will be involved in the coming five years, in addition to the 190 already pursuing research on the quantum limit.

The “space-time research” area

In the hunt for the great goal of fundamental physics, the ultimate union of quantum theory and gravitation, theorists have developed various radical concepts over the past 30 years, such as the theory of strings with its additional spatial dimensions. All the candidates for a solution predict specific novel space-time phenomena, the magnitude of which is fully unknown. Among other things, the following are expected: violations of the equivalence principle (“all masses fall at the same rate”), temporally changing “fundamental constants” (such as elementary electrical charge), fluctuations in the geometry of space-time (“space-time foam”), abnormal light propagation in space, modified gravity and a gravitational wave echo of the Big Bang.

The precision instruments to be developed in QUEST are excellently suited for probing the structure of space and time on a previously unachieved small scale, thus making it possible to trace these phenomena. In this regard QUEST is seeking to balance and interlink theory and experiments. On the one hand, the design of theoretical models influences the applications of QUEST’s quantum centres through the suggestion of innovative experiments with atomic clocks, inertial sensors (for precise measurement of acceleration, rotation and inertial forces), gravitational wave detectors and, for example, lunar laser ranging. On the other hand, there is a focus on improving the precision of the efforts of theoreticians that will enable them to narrow down their models of quantum gravitation.

The special strength of QUEST consists in its unique combination of space-time probes: new quantum sensors and precision clocks can check the consistency of natural constants and support, for example, millimetre-exact earth surveying, which would revolutionize the exploration of the earth system and presents challenges for the general theory of relativity. Future gravitational wave observatories on Earth and in space would test our cosmological notions of the quantum origin of our universe, thus complementing the physics of modern particle accelerators. QUEST can only win: if no new phenomena are found, this would narrow down the number of viable theories; any clear detection of a quantum gravitation signal, on the other hand, would be a sensation!

The “innovative technologies” area

QUEST's ambitious goals are to a large extent based on highly developed experimental technologies, which are researched and expanded at the highest level in the “New Technologies” Department. Based on the traditional basic research on laser physics in Hannover, it is mainly groups of the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V., the PTB and the Institute of Quantum Optics that are working together on the development of next-generation optical technologies. In this regard, laser systems are researched and developed further, for which Hannover is the only place in the world where they are available. They are distinguished by an extremely high light output, high precision in the wavelength of the laser light or by low noise. As a result, laser systems from Hannover also form the basis of the American gravitational wave detectors.

The demanding requirements for the lasers also apply to the individual optical components that make up the systems related thereto, such as the laser mirrors or special optical fibres. The requirements for these components are becoming increasingly demanding. For example, the optics must be able to hold up while rendering extreme optical performance or, for example, be suitable for use in space, such as the laser system developed in Hannover for the upcoming Mercury mission. To make this possible, new materials and concepts are being explored for use in optical systems. QUEST enables the scientific working groups involved to further expand their worldwide leadership position, or, in other cases, to join in collaborating with the leading groups in the world.

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