Flipping a photonic shock wave

November 2, 2009
(Top left) Schematic of Cerenkov radiation in a conventional natural medium with positive refractive index, such as water, in which the radiation falls in a cone in the forward direction. (Bottom left) Schematic of backward Cerenkov radiation in a left-handed medium, showing the reversed cone. (Right) Schematic of the two-dimensional experimental configuration and the photographic image of the negative index metamaterials used to demonstrate backward Cerenkov radiation. The metamaterials consist of in-plane split-ring resonators and metal wires. Credit: Illustration: Alan Stonebraker

A team of physicists has directly observed a reverse shock wave of light in a specially tailored structure known as a left-handed metamaterial. Although it was first predicted over forty years ago, this is the first unambiguous experimental demonstration of the effect. The research is reported in Physical Review Letters and highlighted with a Viewpoint in the November 2 issue of Physics.

Light moving in a vacuum sets the ultimate speed limit, but light travels more slowly through materials like glass and air. Speedy or other charged particles can briefly outrun light in matter, producing a shock wave in the form of a cone of light known as Cerenkov radiation. The eerie blue glow in the cooling water of nuclear reactors is result of particles moving faster than the in water. In normal substances, the radiation is emitted in a forward cone. Left-handed metamaterials, however, have unusual effects on light that should reverse the cone's direction.

When light enters a normal material like glass, it changes direction, allowing us to make lenses that correct poor vision. When light enters a left-handed metamaterial, the change is opposite to the direction that would occur in normal materials. (The materials are "left-handed" because they affect light oppositely from "right-handed" normal materials.) This means that the cone of Cerenkov radiation from a faster-than-light particle should propagate backward in a left-handed metamaterial. But experimental difficulties have prevented confirmation of the effect despite its prediction in 1968.

Now a team of physicists at Zhejiang University in China and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a new metamaterial structure that successfully demonstrates reverse Cerenkov radiation. Instead of injecting faster-than-light particles into their metamaterial, they created an optical analogue of particles moving at twice light speed. This allowed them to produce a much stronger burst of reverse Cerenkov light than they could have gotten with a real particle beam. Besides verifying a decades-old theoretical prediction, the experiment suggests a new possible application of left-handed metamaterials as detectors of high-speed in accelerators and other experiments.

More information: Experimental Verification of Reversed Cherenkov in Left-Handed Metamaterial, Sheng Xi, Hongsheng Chen, Tao Jiang, Lixin Ran, Jiangtao Huangfu, Bae-Ian Wu, Jin Au Kong, and Min Chen, Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 194801 (2009) - Published November 02, 2009, Download PDF (free)

Source: American Physical Society

Explore further: David R. Smith Shares Descartes Award for Material that Reverses Light’s Properties

Related Stories

Team develops new metamaterial device

February 24, 2009

An engineered metamaterial proved it can function as a state-of-the-art device in the complex terahertz range of the electromagnetic spectrum, setting a standard of performance for modulating tiny waves of radiation, according ...

Recommended for you

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

Exploring the physics of a chocolate fountain

November 24, 2015

A mathematics student has worked out the secrets of how chocolate behaves in a chocolate fountain, answering the age-old question of why the falling 'curtain' of chocolate surprisingly pulls inwards rather than going straight ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nov 02, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2009
Why is the direction of the "forward" cone in the picture different from that in wikipedia?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.