Scientists have worked out how to create matter from pure light and are drawing up strategies to exhibit the achievement within the next 12 months.
The theory behind the concept was first defined 80 years ago by two physicists who later worked on the first atomic bomb. At the time they deliberated the conversion of light into matter impossible in a laboratory.
But in a report printed on Sunday, physicists at Imperial College London claim to have tackled the problem using high-powered lasers and other gear now available to researchers.
“We have shown in principle how you can make matter from light,” said Steven Rose at Imperial. “If you do this experiment, you will be taking light and turning it into matter.”
The researchers are not on the verge of a machine that can make everyday objects from a rapid blast of laser energy. The kind of matter they target to make comes in the form of subatomic particles too small to see from naked eye.
The original concept was written down by two US physicists, Gregory Breit and John Wheeler, in 1934. They worked out that – very seldom – two particles of light, or photons, could combine to create an electron and its antimatter equivalent, a positron. Electrons are particles of substance that form the outer shells of atoms in the everyday objects all over the place.
But Breit and Wheeler had no prospects that their theory would be verified any time soon. In their study, the physicists noted that the process was so exceptional and hard to harvest that it would be “hopeless to try to witness the pair formation in laboratory experiments”.
Oliver Pike, the lead scientist on the study, said the procedure was one of the most elegant demonstrations of Einstein’s famous relationship that says matter and energy are substitutable currencies. “The Breit-Wheeler procedure is the modest way matter can be created from light and one of the cleanest demonstrations of E=mc2,” he said.
Writing in the journal Nature Photonics, the researchers explain how they could turn light into matter through a number of distinct steps. The first step fires electrons at a slab of gold to yield a ray of high-energy photons. Next, they fire a high-energy laser into a tiny gold capsule named “hohlraum”, from the German for “empty room”. This creates light as bright as that discharged from stars. In the final stage, they direct the first beam of photons to the hohlraum where the two streams of photons strike.
The researchers’ calculations illustrate that the setup crushes enough particles of light with high sufficient energies into a small enough volume to generate about 100,000 electron-positron pairs.
The process is one of the most remarkable forecasts of a theory called quantum electrodynamics (QED) that was advanced in the run up to the Second World War. “You might call it the most dramatic result of QED and it clearly shows that light and matter are interchangeable,” Rose told the Guardian.
The researchers are confident to exhibit the process in the next 12 months. There are a number of locations around the world that have the technology. One is the huge Omega laser in Rochester, New York. But another is the Orion laser at Aldermaston, the atomic weapons facility in Berkshire.
A fruitful experiment will inspire physicists who have been eyeing the view of a photon-photon collider as a tool to study how subatomic particles behave. “Such a collider could be used to study basic physics with a very clean experimental setup: pure light goes in, matter comes out. The experiment would be the first demonstration of this,” Pike said.
Andrei Seryi, director of the John Adams Institute at Oxford University, said: “It’s breathtaking to ponder that things we thought are not linked can in fact be transformed to each other: matter and energy, particles and light. Would we be capable in the future to convert energy into time and vice versa?”
Fabio Evangelista is a Brazilian writer.
Crossed Paths is the first book of the Myra-Hati trilogy, an epic adventure in a post-apocalyptic world, for the lovers of sci-fi / fantasy genre. This is the author’s first work published in America.