My daily commute to absolute zero

Profile of Dr Graham Batey from Oxford Instruments NanoScience, winner of the 2011 Business and Innovation Medal awarded by the Institute of Physics for sustained outstanding contribution to the application of low temperature physics in an industrial high technology environment. Graham has pioneered the development of refrigerators that can easily reach a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero without using liquid gasses like nitrogen and helium.


When you cool devices to low temperatures then the motions of the electrons and the atoms are greatly reduced and then this simplifies the structure and makes it easier to understand the physics of the device.Dilution refrigerators are very applicable for this application, so this is a really exciting field at the moment.

People often ask me how cold a dilution refrigerator can actually achieve. If you think of your domestic refrigerator at home in your kitchen then our machines can get something like 20,000 times colder.

Close-up of Graham Batey

My recent work on cryo-free systems has been enormously successful. The original concept of designing cryo-free systems was to basically eliminate liquid helium. It’s extremely expensive and it requires a lot of expertise to handle it.

There’s a number of challenges in designing ultra-low equipment. We need to first of all have a really good understanding of the physics and the requirements of the machine. There’s hundreds of joints, welds and seals, all of which need to be leak tight to atomic scale. We’re running at 0.1 of a degree above absolute zero.

Three gold-plated discs, inverted pyramid commected by fine tubes and wiring

Tiny heat inputs at these temperatures, something like one ten millionth of the heat load from an electric lightbulb would be too much for the machine to accommodate and would cause it to warm up.

In a nutshell, how a dilution refrigerator works is that it uses a mixture of two isotopes of helium. It uses helium-3 which is extremely rare and the more abundant helium-4. If you cool down a mixture of helium-3 and helium-4 it will phase separate with the lighter atoms floating on the top of the denser helium-4 atoms. So this is very similar to oil and water. So if you can think of the oil floating on the top, then you’ve got a distinct boundary between the oil and the water.

If we can force atoms to cross the phase boundary from that concentrated phase into that dilute phase, this provides a cooling process.It can operate for weeks and months below ten millikelvin.

Sitting on a desk, Graham Batey leans to point out detail on a screen to a colleague

I’ve worked on a number of extremely exciting projects actually over the years. The machines that Professor von Klitzing, Bob Richardson and Doug Osheroff received their Nobel prize for, they were all on machines I designed.The fascination of working at ultra-low temperatures for me and the reason why I really enjoy it is the challenge of achieving the performance that the customer requires, it’s using my physics education and background to good practical use, coming up with well-engineered solutions and then physically seeing the equipment being built from the concept that you’ve designed and it ultimately being installed in a customer’s lab is extremely rewarding.I’ve been working in the field since 1985 and I still find it very enjoyable.

Graham Batey wheels equipment down walkway between development bays

About the film

Filmed on location at

  • Oxford Instruments, Tubney Wood, Oxfordshire

Produced for the Institute of Physics

Director: Martyn Bull
Producer: Thomas Delfs
Camera: Steve Allen
Editor: Jacinta Madison
Music: Ram Khatabakhsh

Further reading

Wikipedia – Dilution refrigerator

One thought on “My daily commute to absolute zero

Leave a comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.