Atoms exposed to intense light lose one or more electrons and become ions. In strong fields, the process is predicted to occur via tunnelling through the binding potential that is suppressed by the light field near the peaks of its oscillations. Here we report the real-time observation of this most elementary step in strong-field interactions: light-induced electron tunnelling. The process is found to deplete atomic bound states in sharp steps lasting several hundred attoseconds. This suggests a new technique, attosecond tunnelling, for probing short-lived, transient states of atoms or molecules with high temporal resolution. The utility of attosecond tunnelling is demonstrated by capturing multi-electron excitation (shake-up) and relaxation (cascaded Auger decay) processes with subfemtosecond resolution.
- Advanced Materials Science