An international team of physicists has resolved a long-standing mystery of quantum mechanics with the help of the Raijin supercomputer. Their research has revealed that, since the time taken for quantum tunnelling to occur is a complex number, the process must occur instantaneously.
“We have modelled the most delicate processes of nature very accurately,” says Professor Anatoli Kheifets, one of the 11 main contributors to the paper.
Attosecond spectroscopy, a field that is only 15 years old, is concerned with ultra-fast phenomena that take place in about 1 quintillionth (10-18) of a second. This work has shed new light on quantum tunnelling, and provided more satisfying explanations for phenomena such as the time delay when an atom is ionised by a photon.
The quantum behaviour of particles is unintuitive to humans because it is like nothing we experience in the macroscopic world. Due to the wave-like nature of electrons, their position can never be well defined, and as a result they can behave in unexpected ways. Quantum tunnelling, where electrons achieve the seemingly impossible and pass through impenetrable barriers, is one example of this.
Another contributor, Dr. Igor Ivanov, explains that “a very interestingparadox arises, because electron velocity during tunnelling may become greater than the speed of light.” Fortunately for Einstein, this does not result in a violation of the theory of special relativity because the velocity of the tunnelling electrons is also an imaginary number.
Quantum tunnelling has relevance in many fields, from nuclear fusion to electronic engineering to genetics, and is becoming very relevant in fields such as electronic engineering, where the leakage of particles limits how small components can be. This new research could lead to advances in microchip design, computer flash memory, DNA mutation modelling and electron microscopy, to name just a few, as well as allowing for more precise calibration of any future attosecond-scale experimentation.