Scientists create quantum “tornado” that mimics black holes

A giant quantum vortex – or a quantum tornado – provides a better understanding of black holes, researchers say.

The quantum tornado was created to mimic a black hole in superfluid helium, something that has never been done before, according to the University of Nottingham, which led the research in collaboration with King’s College London and Newcastle University.

The experiment has allowed scientists to see in greater detail how black holes behave and interact with their surroundings in real life, it said. Their findings were published in the scientific journal Nature.

“Using superfluid helium has allowed us to study tiny surface waves in greater detail and accuracy than with our previous experiments in water,” said Dr Patrik Švančara, lead author of the paper from the University of Nottingham’s School of Mathematical Sciences.

Bespoke cryogenic system built for the superfluid helium experiment. Image by Leonardo Solidoro

“As the viscosity of superfluid helium is extremely small, we were able to meticulously investigate their interaction with the superfluid tornado and compare the findings with our own theoretical projections,” Švančara said.

The research team constructed a bespoke cryogenic system capable of containing several liters of superfluid helium at temperatures lower than -271 °C, which is when liquid helium acquires unusual quantum properties.

“Superfluid helium contains tiny objects called quantum vortices, which tend to spread apart from each other. In our set-up, we've managed to confine tens of thousands of these quanta in a compact object resembling a small tornado, achieving a vortex flow with record-breaking strength in the realm of quantum fluids,” Švančara said.

The research team’s experiments go back to 2017, when it first observed “clear signs” of black hole physics, according to Professor Silke Weinfurtner, co-author of the study, also from Nottingham’s School of Mathematical Sciences.

“It was a breakthrough moment for understanding some of the bizarre phenomena that are often challenging, if not impossible, to study otherwise,” Weinfurtner said.

“Now, with our more sophisticated experiment, we have taken this research to the next level, which could eventually lead us to predict how quantum fields behave in curved spacetimes around astrophysical black holes.”

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