News Release

Single trapped atom captures Science Photography competition's top prize

Grant and Award Announcement

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

An image of a single positively-charged strontium atom, held near motionless by electric fields, has won the overall prize in a national science photography competition, organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

'Single Atom in an Ion Trap', by David Nadlinger, from the University of Oxford, shows the atom held by the fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres.

When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet colour the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph. The winning picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the ion trap.

Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics. They can serve as extremely accurate clocks and sensors or, as explored by the UK Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today's largest supercomputers.

The image, came first in the Equipment & Facilities category, as well as winning overall against many other stunning pictures, featuring research in action, in the EPSRC's competition - now in its fifth year.

David Nadlinger, explained how the photograph came about: "The idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye had struck me as a wonderfully direct and visceral bridge between the miniscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality. A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed the numbers to be on my side, and when I set off to the lab with camera and tripods one quiet Sunday afternoon, I was rewarded with this particular picture of a small, pale blue dot."

The competition's five categories were: Eureka & Discovery, Equipment & Facilities, People & Skills, Innovation, and Weird & Wonderful. Other winning images were:

In a kitchen far far away...

  • The fluid instability patterns on top of a spherical soap bubble in a kitchen sink. The two sides of the image show some of the different physical phenomena studied in the research into how foams form and behave in lubricants and products like drinks.

    Spiderman on George IV Bridge: EEG testing with an older volunteer on a busy Edinburgh street

  • A volunteer wearing an Electroencephalography (EEG) headset that records brain activity as he walks along George IV Bridge Edinburgh. Researchers used EEG to measure the neural responses of older people to different outdoor urban environments, from busy roads to a quiet park.

    Microbubble for drug delivery

  • A micron-sized bubble coated with nano-sized liposomes containing a drug. Microbubbles are being explored for therapeutic applications and improve the delivery of drugs to diseased targets such as tumours.

Nature's Nanosized Net for Capturing Colour

  • The micrometre-scale structures that cover a butterfly's wing that trap the Sun's rays and give rise to an array of dazzling colours.

The judges were:

Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FRS FREng - President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Dr Ellie Cosgrave - BBC broadcaster, Deputy Director of the City Leadership Laboratory and Lecturer in Urban Innovation and Policy, UCL Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP).

Martin Keene MVO - Group Picture Editor - Press Association.

Professor Tom Rodden - EPSRC's Deputy Chief Executive.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling said: "What I think is remarkable about the photographs submitted is that they are linked to projects supported by EPSRC and demonstrate the sheer breadth of the technical areas being funded and the opportunities for real change for people, businesses and society through the innovations that are coming from this work.

"Not only do we have really strong, attractive photographs, the stories behind them about the research and why it is being done are inspiring. "Much of this work will lead to innovations that transform lives and, in this Year of Engineering, it's marvellous to see these great examples of transformational research."

Congratulating the winners and entrants, Professor Tom Rodden, EPSRC's Deputy Chief Executive, said: "Every year we are stunned by the quality and creativity of the entries into our competition and this year has been no exception. They show that our researchers want to tell the world about the beauty of science and engineering. I'd like to thank everyone who entered; judging was really difficult.

"The images help the public engage with the research they fund, and I hope they will spark interest in science and engineering among people, young or older."

Dr Ellie Cosgrave said: "The winners we have selected demonstrate how science and technology is affecting people's lives today at many different physical scales. We have examples from the nanoscale, how our cells are working; how our immune systems might be able to treat different types of diseases; all the way up to technologies that can help us move through cities."


For further information and images please contact the EPSRC Press Office on 01793 444 404 or email

Notes to editors:

The competition received over 100 entries which were drawn from researchers in receipt of EPSRC funding. The first, second and third prize winning images with descriptions are all available to download from the EPSRC website

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate.

By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

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