Quantum tunneling takes time, new study shows

Experiments tested whether electrons could escape an atom instantaneously

electrons illustration

TIME OUT  Electrons can escape their atoms, even if the particles don’t have enough energy to do so, through quantum tunneling. But such tunneling takes time, a new study suggests.


Quantum particles can burrow through barriers that should be impenetrable — but they don’t do it instantaneously, a new experiment suggests.

The process, known as quantum tunneling, takes place extremely quickly, making it difficult to confirm whether it takes any time at all. Now, in a study of electrons escaping from their atoms, scientists have pinpointed how long the particles take to tunnel out: around 100 attoseconds, or 100 billionths of a billionth of a second, researchers report July 14 in Physical Review Letters.

In quantum tunneling, a particle passes through a barrier despite not having enough energy to cross it. It’s as if someone rolled a ball up a hill but didn’t give it a hard enough push to reach the top, and yet somehow the ball tunneled through to the other side.

Although scientists knew that particles could tunnel, until now, “it was not really clear how that happens, or what, precisely, the particle does,” says physicist Christoph Keitel of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. Theoretical physicists have long debated between two possible options. In one model, the particle appears immediately on the other side of the barrier, with no initial momentum. In the other, the particle takes time to pass through, and it exits the tunnel with some momentum already built up.

Keitel and colleagues tested quantum tunneling by blasting argon and krypton gas with laser pulses. Normally, the pull of an atom’s positively charged nucleus keeps electrons tightly bound, creating an electromagnetic barrier to their escape. But, given a jolt from a laser, electrons can break free. That jolt weakens the electromagnetic barrier just enough that electrons can leave, but only by tunneling.

Although the scientists weren’t able to measure the tunneling time directly, they set up their experiment so that the angle at which the electrons flew away from the atom would reveal which of the two theories was correct. The laser’s light was circularly polarized — its electromagnetic waves rotated in time, changing the direction of the waves’ wiggles. If the electron escaped immediately, the laser would push it in one particular direction. But if tunneling took time, the laser’s direction would have rotated by the time the electron escaped, so the particle would be pushed in a different direction.  

Comparing argon and krypton let the scientists cancel out experimental errors, leading to a more sensitive measurement that was able to distinguish between the two theories. The data matched predictions based on the theory that tunneling takes time.

The conclusion jibes with some physicists’ expectations. “I’m pretty sure that the tunneling time cannot be instantaneous, because at the end, in physics, nothing can be instantaneous,” says physicist Ursula Keller of ETH Zurich. The result, she says, agrees with an earlier experiment carried out by her team.

Other scientists still think instantaneous tunneling is possible. Physicist Olga Smirnova of the Max Born Institute in Berlin notes that Keitel and colleagues’ conclusions contradict previous research. In theoretical calculations of tunneling in very simple systems, Smirnova and colleagues found no evidence of tunneling time. The complexity of the atoms studied in the new experiment may have led to the discrepancy, Smirnova says. Still, the experiment is “very accurate and done with great care.”

Although quantum tunneling may seem an esoteric concept, scientists have harnessed it for practical purposes. Scanning tunneling microscopes, for instance, use tunneling electrons to image individual atoms. For such an important fundamental process, Keller says, physicists really have to be certain they understand it. “I don’t think we can close the chapter on the discussion yet,” she says.

Editor’s note: This story was updated August 1, 2017, to clarify how electrons can escape from an atom.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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