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An image of a single positively-charged strontium atom, held near motionless by electric fields, has won the overall prize in a national science photography competition organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Epsrc photo competition winners
The winning photos. From left to right: David Nadlinger's overall winning image of a single trapped atom; Estelle Beguin's image of a microbubble for drug delivery; Tayo Sanders' image of a biodegradable microbowl for cancer treatment.

‘Single Atom in an Ion Trap’ was taken by David Nadlinger, a DPhil student at Oxford’s Department of Physics, working in the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT). The image also came first in the Equipment & Facilities category.

The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres. When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet colour the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph. The winning picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the ion trap.

Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They can serve as extremely accurate clocks and sensors or, as explored by NQIT, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today’s largest supercomputers.

David Nadlinger explained how the photograph came about: “The idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye had struck me as a wonderfully direct and visceral bridge between the miniscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality," he said.

"A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed the numbers to be on my side, and when I set off to the lab with camera and tripods one quiet Sunday afternoon, I was rewarded with this particular picture of a small, pale blue dot.” 

Two other DPhil students from MPLS Division also won prizes in the competition. Both are based at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME) in the Department of Engineering Science and are working in Professor Eleanor Stride’s group.

Estelle Beguin won first prize in the ‘Innovation’ category for her photo ‘Microbubble for drug delivery’. The photo was of a micron-sized bubble coated with nano-sized liposomes containing a drug. Microbubbles are being explored by Professor Stride’s group for therapeutic applications and improve the delivery of drugs to diseased targets such as tumours.

Tayo Sanders won second prize in the category ‘Eureka and Discovery’ for his picture ‘Biodegradable microbowls could help fight stubbon cancers’. He describes his photo: ‘In a world dominated by spheres, bowl-shaped microparticles, such as the one pictured, may take the spotlight. Unlike healthy organs, many tumours lack an extensive network of blood vessels. This makes it difficult for anti-tumour drugs to reach deeper regions of the tumour, limiting their effectiveness. However, if bowl-shaped particles are injected along with the drug and ultrasound is applied, the drug could penetrate farther into the tumour. This happens because gas can be trapped in the cavity of the particle, and the ultrasound causes the trapped gas bubble to oscillate. The surrounding fluid is rapidly moved by the oscillations and forced into the tumour, carrying the drug along with it.’

Professor Dame Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and one of the competition judges, said: “What I think is remarkable about the photographs submitted is that they are linked to projects supported by EPSRC and demonstrate the sheer breadth of the technical areas being funded and the opportunities for real change for people, businesses and society through the innovations that are coming from this work.

“Not only do we have really strong, attractive photographs, the stories behind them about the research and why it is being done are inspiring.

“Much of this work will lead to innovations that transform lives and, in this Year of Engineering, it’s marvellous to see these great examples of transformational research.”

See the EPSRC website for full details of the winners.

Story courtesy of EPSRC