Walking Through Walls

Quantum Tunneling

Potential Quantum Tunneling is a process through which subatomic particles break the rules of classical physics and go through a nonconducting obstacle instead of around it. Engineers and scientists have adequately demonstrated quantum tunneling particles in semiconductors, and even though the probability of tunneling is small, a team of physicists now claim that it is possible to observe tunneling with larger objects as well.

Mika Sillanpää and colleagues at Aalto University in Finland have set up an experiment that they believe will demonstrate a macroscopic object tunneling through an obstacle.

The experiment uses a tiny widget made out of graphene, a strong, very flexible sheet of carbon only one atom thick. After suspending the membrane over a metal plate, the researchers then apply an electrical voltage giving the sheet two positions — one where it is slightly curved in the middle, and another where it bends enough to touch the plate below — creating an energy barrier between the two. If the researchers are able to lower the membrane’s energy by cooling its temperature to less than one thousandth of a degree above absolute zero, the graphene would have to quantum tunnel in order to get between the two positions.

Other physicists, such as Walter Lawrence of Dartmouth College, believe the experiment will be difficult, but are enthusiastic about the potential results: “Quantum tunneling in a mechanical system is the kind of holy grail that people are looking for now.”

Sillanpää admits it may take several years to achieve the right temperature but, if they are successful, the results would demonstrate the first step toward humans moving through walls.

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