In this thesis, the use of pulsed laser fields to control the center-of-mass motion of neutral atoms and molecules is studied both numerically and experimentally. In particular, we consider the use of a pulsed standing wave for the deflection of atomic beams, and develop novel types of mirrors for applications in atom and molecule optics. The research work shows that pulsed laser fields can be applied to form efficient mirrors for neutral particles regardless of the details of their internal energy-level structure. Moreover, it is shown that pulsed standing waves can also be utilized to efficiently deflect atomic beams.
In the first part of the thesis, we study the effects of phase fluctuations of the laser field on the momentum distribution of atoms after interaction with a standing wave. Our numerical simulations show that the coherence properties of the laser field play a major role in diffraction of atoms, especially when using pulsed lasers. It turns out that the effects caused by the limited coherence time of the optical field are clearly observable as a transfer of atoms in momentum space to the region around zero momentum rather than to high momentum states. The numerical analysis of the pulsed standing-wave diffraction was complemented by experimental measurements of the deflection profiles of a beam of thermal sodium atoms. The experimental distributions were measured for a value of the coherence time intermediate between the Rabi period and the interaction time. A comparison of the results with an expected distribution calculated for a fully coherent interaction shows that the phase fluctuations of the light field drastically affect the achievable transverse momentum values. Based on our theoretical and experimental analysis of the diffraction profiles, we conclude that large deflection angles can be reached only when laser pulses with a Fourier-limited bandwidth are applied.
The second part of the thesis concentrates on the development of pulsed mirrors for neutral atoms and molecules. In particular, we consider the use of an evanescent wave, formed in total internal reflection of light on a vacuum-dielectric interface, and of a standing wave as possible mirror configurations. Our numerical simulations of the pulsed evanescent-wave mirror show that atoms with initial velocities up to several tens of meters per second can be reflected already at the moderate field intensities of a few tens of MW/cm2. This allows pulsed evanescent waves to be applied in a compact setup to control the motion of thermal atomic beams, for which the traditional atom mirrors are suited only at grazing incidence. However, since the effective interaction volume of the atomic beam and the laser field is limited by the short decay length of the evanescent wave, only a relatively small number of atoms can be reflected with a single laser pulse. Furthermore, the reflection is always inelastic, since the force exerted on the atoms varies as a function of the initial position of the particles. To solve the above problem we consider the use of a standing wave as a pulsed mirror for atoms. Our numerical simulations show that with a proper choice of the pulse duration and field intensity, each period of the standing-wave pattern functions as an elastic mirror for particles with an initial kinetic energy below the depth of the standing-wave potential. Hence, the standing-wave pattern acts as a long row of independent atom mirrors, which provides a novel route to controlling large volumes of fast atoms even with a single laser pulse.
As a second application for the pulsed standing-wave mirror we consider the reflection of slow molecules, for which no efficient mirror configuration previously has been available. It is shown that pulsed standing waves of nonresonant frequencies can be used to efficiently manipulate large volumes of rotationally cold molecules. With a suitable choice of the parameter values, the molecules can be reflected nearly elastically, or with a tailored momentum distribution. This opens up a possibility to use the pulsed standing-wave mirror to control the motion of particles in various applications of atomic and molecular physics. Such a mirror could be applied, for example, to steer and image molecular beams, separate molecular species, and to form pulsed molecular beams.