This polarisation causes the atoms to spiral towards the nanotube, speeding them up until the atoms circle it in just a few trillionths of a second. Eventually each atom's outermost electron detaches and enters the nanotube through a process called quantum tunnelling. The positively charged rubidium ion that it leaves behind is repelled by the positively charged nanotube and slingshots away.
Modifications to this set-up could produce a trap capable of keeping a cloud of cold atoms spinning around the nanotube. "One could use the system to make completely new states of cold atom matter," says Hau. It could also be used to detect trace amounts of gas, or be adapted to make precise atom interferometers, which measure small variations in gravity, she says."