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Atomic, Molecular & Optical Physics

JILA makes major contributions to five vibrant research areas in the field of atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physics: ultracold atoms, ultracold molecules, the manipulation of atoms and molecules with ultrafast light, optical physics, and dense atomic vapors. Ultracold atoms and molecules comprise novel forms of matter that exist at temperatures below a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero (-459.67 °F). Many of JILA's atomic physicists investigate the properties, behavior, and interactions of cold (~1 K) and ultracold matter. In the process, they learn first hand about a strange and hidden world where the laws of quantum mechanics predominate. Their research has helped to redefine atomic physics, a field that has enjoyed explosive growth because of the ability of theory to accurately describe observed phenomena and give predictive support to experiments.

At another frontier, JILA scientists are exploring the fastest processes in the natural world using ultrafast pulses on the femtosecond (10-15 seconds), attosecond (10-18 seconds), and zeptosecond (10-21 seconds) time scales. This research explores the complex, interwoven dance of electrons in matter: how electrons can be manipulated using light fields, how electrons influence each other, and how electrons and atoms are dynamically coupled in molecules and materials. As part of this research, JILA scientists have developed ultrafast laser and x-ray sources that are now in use throughout the world for applications in science, technology, industry, and medicine.

JILA physicists manipulate light to produce ultrashort laser pulses and then study these pulses to gain insight into the fundamental properties of light itself. This work is intertwined with the development of extreme light sources, molecular fingerprinting and control, and the precise control of ultrafast pulses. Ultrafast lasers can now deliver "designer" light pulses whose applications include the study and control of dynamical processes in chemistry, biology, materials science, medicine, telecommunications, and nanotechnology. This research also impacts signal processing, precision measurement, optical frequency standards, and optical atomic clocks.

JILA’s AMO physics research is supported by the Institute’s program in precision measurement, or precision metrology. Armed with this power tool, JILA’s AMO physicists are able to look for answers to some of today’s most important scientific questions.


  • How do cold and ultracold atoms and molecules collide and chemically react?
  • How do electrons and nuclei in an atom or molecule influence each other and exchange energy?
  • What is the contact and what does its presence tell us about an ultracold gas?
  • How can we use laser light to control a chemical reaction?
  • Can an experiment mimic a natural chemical or biological system's ability to select the optimal optical waveform to enhance a particular process?
  • Can we create additional novel states of matter in the laboratory?
  • What can we learn about crystals found in nature by studying crystals of light?
  • Does the electron have an electric dipole moment?
  • Can we make ultracold atom analogs of electronic devices?
  • Can we create ‘designer’ laser pulses that interact with quantum systems more efficiently than traditional laser pulses?
  • How do we make measurements beyond the standard quantum limit?


AMO Research