Evaporation of microwave-shielded polar molecules to quantum degeneracy
Nature volume 607, pages 677–681 (2022)
Ultracold polar molecules offer strong electric dipole moments and rich internal structure, which makes them ideal building blocks to explore exotic quantum matter, implement novel quantum information schemes, or test fundamental symmetries of nature. Realizing their full potential requires cooling interacting molecular gases deeply into the quantum degenerate regime. However, the intrinsically unstable collisions between molecules at short range have so far prevented direct cooling via elastic collisions to quantum degeneracy in three dimensions. Here, we demonstrate evaporative cooling of a three-dimensional gas of fermionic sodium-potassium molecules to well below the Fermi temperature using microwave shielding. The molecules are protected from reaching short range with a repulsive barrier engineered by coupling rotational states with a blue-detuned circularly polarized microwave. The microwave dressing induces strong tunable dipolar interactions between the molecules, leading to high elastic collision rates that can exceed the inelastic ones by at least a factor of 460. This large elastic-to-inelastic collision ratio allows us to cool the molecular gas down to 21 nanokelvin, corresponding to 0.36 times the Fermi temperature. Such cold and dense samples of polar molecules open the path to the exploration of novel many-body phenomena with strong dipolar interactions.