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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Western professor creates new molecule capable of increasing computing speeds

Illustration by Max Singler
Illustration by Max Singler

Seth Rittenhouse, an assistant physics professor, was able to create a new molecule capable of faster computing than any current transistor-based computer.

Rittenhouse is part of the research team that created the new molecule, called the Rydberg molecule, 15 years after it was first hypothesized.

Molecules are two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds. In the case of the Rydberg molecule, a single atom and an excited electron turns into an electronic orbital.

It is an incredibly large molecule, Rittenhouse said. The distance between the two atoms is 100 nanometers, meaning it is twice the size of the virus that causes the common cold, he said.

The research was released early April in a research journal named Science, and is available on the journal’s website.

While Rittenhouse said he is unsure of what the discovery will mean for future theoretical and experimental work, he believes it is an exciting development.

“This is the first time anyone’s really seen them,” Rittenhouse said. “We have to figure out what we can do with them. There’s a world of possibilities of stuff to do.”

Controlling the rates of chemical reactions and exploring the rate of controlled chemistry are other ways the Rydberg molecule can be used, he said.

The Rydberg molecule was first hypothesized by theorists Chris Greene, Alan Dickinson and Hossein Sadeghpour in 2000.

The team, including Rittenhouse, was led by The University of Oklahoma’s James Shaffer. The team included experimentalists in the lab and theorists to create various formulas to be tested.

“[Rittenhouse] was always full of ideas and a healthy dose of skepticism,” Shaffer said in an email. “I think if you are doing something new, you have to work with a group of people who are willing to throw ideas around, and confident to do it, but also want to make sure that you are really unveiling something about the natural world.”

Sadeghpour, a partner in the research from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, collaborated with Rittenhouse on several occasions, he said in an email.

The two discussed the progression of their theoretical research for the Rydberg molecules.

The creation of the Rydberg molecule also produced the largest dipole moment to date, Rittenhouse said. These moments affect how molecules bond.

Rittenhouse received his undergraduate and postgraduate degree in physics and mathematics at Western before working on experimental theory. He has taught at Western for three years.

His experience with being a student at Western drew him back to returning to teach. “I love the Pacific Northwest and I love this school,” Rittenhouse said. “It’s a great place to be.”

In addition to teaching classes, Rittenhouse also spent time working on the Rydberg molecule theory during his contracted time as a professor at Western.

“As a theorist, I don’t go in the lab at all. It is probably for the best, I’d probably break things,” Rittenhouse said.

Instead, his job uses fundamental qualities of physics in order to predict the behaviors of molecules, Rittenhouse said.

He finished his doctorate program at University of Colorado Boulder, followed by completing his Ph.D. at the Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Harvard University Department of Physics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rittenhouse said he plans to continue working on further developments with Rydberg molecules, along with Shaffer and Sadeghpour. He said the team hopes to find out what further uses Rydberg molecules will have to science.

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