Scientists discover how to turn light into matter after 80-year quest

May 18, 2014
This shows theories describing light and matter interactions. Credit: Oliver Pike, Imperial College London

Imperial College London physicists have discovered how to create matter from light - a feat thought impossible when the idea was first theorised 80 years ago.

In just one day over several cups of coffee in a tiny office in Imperial's Blackett Physics Laboratory, three physicists worked out a relatively simple way to physically prove a first devised by scientists Breit and Wheeler in 1934.

Breit and Wheeler suggested that it should be possible to turn into matter by smashing together only two particles of light (photons), to create an electron and a positron – the simplest method of turning light into matter ever predicted. The calculation was found to be theoretically sound but Breit and Wheeler said that they never expected anybody to physically demonstrate their prediction. It has never been observed in the laboratory and past experiments to test it have required the addition of massive high-energy particles.

The new research, published in Nature Photonics, shows for the first time how Breit and Wheeler's theory could be proven in practice. This 'photon-photon collider', which would convert light directly into matter using technology that is already available, would be a new type of high-energy physics experiment. This experiment would recreate a process that was important in the first 100 seconds of the universe and that is also seen in gamma ray bursts, which are the biggest explosions in the universe and one of physics' greatest unsolved mysteries.

The scientists had been investigating unrelated problems in fusion energy when they realised what they were working on could be applied to the Breit-Wheeler theory. The breakthrough was achieved in collaboration with a fellow theoretical physicist from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, who happened to be visiting Imperial.

Demonstrating the Breit-Wheeler theory would provide the final jigsaw piece of a physics puzzle which describes the simplest ways in which light and matter interact (see image in notes to editors). The six other pieces in that puzzle, including Dirac's 1930 theory on the annihilation of electrons and positrons and Einstein's 1905 theory on the photoelectric effect, are all associated with Nobel Prize-winning research (see image).

Professor Steve Rose from the Department of Physics at Imperial College London said: "Despite all physicists accepting the theory to be true, when Breit and Wheeler first proposed the theory, they said that they never expected it be shown in the laboratory. Today, nearly 80 years later, we prove them wrong. What was so surprising to us was the discovery of how we can create matter directly from light using the technology that we have today in the UK. As we are theorists we are now talking to others who can use our ideas to undertake this landmark experiment."

The collider experiment that the scientists have proposed involves two key steps. First, the scientists would use an extremely powerful high-intensity laser to speed up electrons to just below the speed of light. They would then fire these electrons into a slab of gold to create a beam of photons a billion times more energetic than visible light.

The next stage of the experiment involves a tiny gold can called a hohlraum (German for 'empty room'). Scientists would fire a high-energy laser at the inner surface of this gold can, to create a thermal radiation field, generating light similar to the light emitted by stars.

They would then direct the photon beam from the first stage of the experiment through the centre of the can, causing the photons from the two sources to collide and form electrons and positrons. It would then be possible to detect the formation of the electrons and positrons when they exited the can.

Lead researcher Oliver Pike who is currently completing his PhD in plasma physics, said: "Although the theory is conceptually simple, it has been very difficult to verify experimentally. We were able to develop the idea for the collider very quickly, but the experimental design we propose can be carried out with relative ease and with existing technology. Within a few hours of looking for applications of hohlraums outside their traditional role in research, we were astonished to find they provided the perfect conditions for creating a photon collider. The race to carry out and complete the experiment is on!"

Explore further: The first model for capturing and condensing light under realistic conditions

More information: Pike, O, J. et al. 2014. 'A photon–photon collider in a vacuum hohlraum'. Nature Photonics, 18 May 2014: dx.doi.org/10.1038/nphoton.2014.95

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Experiment on Earth demonstrates effect observed in space

Apr 29, 2014

Streaming jets of high-speed matter produce some of the most stunning objects seen in space. Astronomers have seen them shooting out of young stars just being formed, X-ray binary stars and even the supermassive black holes ...

Team 'gets the edge' on photon transport in silicon

Oct 23, 2013

Scientists have a new way to edge around a difficult problem in quantum physics, now that a research team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and University of Maryland's Joint ...

Recommended for you

Researchers develop powerful, silicon-based laser

Sep 29, 2014

A silicon-based laser that lases up to a record 111°C, with a threshold current density of 200 A/cm2 and an output power exceeding 100 mW at room temperature, has been demonstrated by collaborating researcher ...

Predicting landslides with light

Sep 29, 2014

Optical fiber sensors are used around the world to monitor the condition of difficult-to-access segments of infrastructure—such as the underbellies of bridges, the exterior walls of tunnels, the feet of dams, long pipelines ...

Studies in laser physics help understand rogue waves

Sep 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —University of Auckland physicist Dr Miro Erkintalo is part of an international team investigating how lasers and optical fibres can be used to understand freakishly large waves on the ocean.

User comments : 49

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

qquax
4.7 / 5 (18) May 18, 2014
The translation of Hohlraum is cringe-worthy. It shows a complete lack of understanding of how German composite words work.

"Raum" refers to any sort space such as in "Weltraum" (Welt=world) for outer space. "Hohl" shares the same root as the English word hollow and indicates that this is a hollow space within some material. There is a precise word for this in the English language and that is "cavity".

George_Rajna
May 18, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
KBK
1 / 5 (8) May 18, 2014
In reality (hah) all we're doing is forcing the realization of the geometric vibrational intrusion/alignment/polarization into this space... of dark matter.

Like trying to build another car from inside a car, where the only tool is cars.

As long as one realizes that this is inherent in the attempt, and adjusts accordingly, then it may work. As proposed, the basics (electrons/positrons) is probably all that could be enabled/gated/resonated/polarized/vectored/spun into occurring, or more properly, gated into being realized into this space/time of quanta we call 'the universe. (In all our/it's limited glory)

Brute force & ignorance. Ie, the extra wrinkle..of having boulders for hands and trying to build tiny precise origami. The proposed tools are far too large, imprecise and blunt.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.6 / 5 (9) May 18, 2014
The translation of Hohlraum is cringe-worthy. It shows a complete lack of understanding of how German composite words work
Well you could try the dictionary.

"Hohlraum
leerer oder mit etwas angefüllter, umschlossener hohler Raum im Innern von etwas, innerhalb einer dichten oder porösen Substanz"

-You could also look up the word 'idiom'.

Pedants are cringeworthy.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) May 18, 2014
The translation of Hohlraum is cringe-worthy. It shows a complete lack of understanding of how German composite words work.

Agreed. You can have an empty room in an appartment, but no german would ever refer to this as a Hohlraum.

The concept is a bit more subtle as a the term "Hohlraum" is something that is completely enclosed (or at least almost nearly so). Note that the Hohlraum targets used in fusion do not qualify by that definition. The only reason they can be called a Hohlraum is because the second way to use it is an enclosure which is the point and purpose of a particular structure.

Translations are never easy, and if you do it word for word it often fails to capture the nuances. 'Cavity' comes closest but it's also not quiiiite the same.
mytwocts
5 / 5 (1) May 18, 2014
So actually they devised a manner to reverse electron-positron annihilation. It will be a first rank experiment. Still, unless something unexpected happens and shows there is more out there than theory predicts it is just a direct verification of a theory that has been known for many decades.
Pejico
May 18, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Bob Osaka
4.7 / 5 (3) May 18, 2014
This is one of the best discussions I've read by far. Aside from the quibbling about German. A specific experimental proposal designed to confirm a long held theory.
Photofission by gamma photons has been established. Photofusion, Wow!
I'm still trying to wrap my head around a photon experiencing neither time nor distance.
I for one applaud this proposal. Let us hope the results are more than predicted.
Shakescene21
3 / 5 (2) May 18, 2014
Thanks qquax and antialias for the German lesson. Hohlraum is a cool-sounding word and I'm trying to think of a way to casually use it when I see my physicist brother-in-law.
indio007
1.5 / 5 (10) May 19, 2014
What are they going to do when it doesn't work?
Of course they will have to save the flawed theories and declare electrons and/or photons non-existent.
Namely Kirchhoff's Law.
Whys
1.6 / 5 (7) May 19, 2014
In short: a plasma physicist used the light from his lighter to annihilate some ganja, then had a *really cool* idea for an experiment.
Pooua
5 / 5 (3) May 19, 2014
Physicists http://www.scienc...019.htm, that the firing of powerful laser into matter (gold target) generates lotta antimatter. So I'm missing the explanation of what it is actually new here.


What's new is that the experiment won't need to use any other particles in the creation of matter from energy. The experiment you linked, e.g., uses gold nuclei to produce positrons. This new experiment simply collides photons together. No matter is necessary after the photons have been created.
forthommel
not rated yet May 19, 2014
This is a great field of study indeed! But to be complete one should also mention some recent highlights for these two-photon processes.

An indirect search for such interaction has indeed already been performed at lepton and hadron colliders such as the HERA (electron-proton) or the widely-known LHC (proton-proton).

Just to flash some results, in the latter part the two-photon production of muon (http://bit.ly/1vrDhg6) and electron (http://bit.ly/1juuaHF) pairs was observed by the CMS experiment and thus the production rate (or cross-section, to quote an awful word) could be quantified.

This technique was furthermore exploited to produce heavier objects, such as W boson pairs (namely, the weak interaction force carriers) : http://bit.ly/1j1v1tk. This is a nice way to probe with a very high precision the actual theoretical framework for particles physics, the Standard Model of particles and interactions.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) May 19, 2014
Hohlraum is a cool-sounding word and I'm trying to think of a way to casually use it when I see my physicist brother-in-law.

If you want to use it in everyday conversations you can use it to refer to someone's brain.

Alternatively you can use Hoglraumversiegelung...which losely translates to 'cavity filler'...which is a euphemism for solid/homogeneous food types (e.g. mashed potatoes)
johanfprins
not rated yet May 19, 2014
All you have to do is to trap a coherent light-wave within a cavity with perfectly-reflecting walls. The stationary trapped wave then has no dynamic EM-energy: Only stationary EM energy, which is the same as rest mass: And voila! A matter-wave. For example, the stationary wave within a laser cavity is a matter-wave. Also the stationary-waves within a black-body cavity are matter-waves. Light waves are all moving with a speed c and therefore have only dynamic mass energy; no rest-mass energy. Therefore a light-wave cannot be weighed. But they can be weighed when trapped to form a stationary-wave which is a matter-wave since all its energy is then rest-mass energy.
darryl_leckenby
2.6 / 5 (5) May 19, 2014
Dr Keshe wrote the books 'The structure of the light' and 'the universal order of the creation of matters'. It's been in university libraries for quite a while with these 'new discoveries' clearly mentioned and detailed - he doesn't even claim to own them or discover them - just share them. He graduated from Queen Mary College, London in 1981 and has been on youtube recently demonstrating these 'discoveries'. This is a false claim or originality and Mehran Tavakoli Keshe is lightyears ahead of the 'current science'. Check him out on wikipedia or visit his free school where you can stay for free in Italy!
Stanley Christmas
1 / 5 (6) May 19, 2014
Mehran Tavakoli Keshe studied at this university, wrote a book, published articles and talked on too many places about HIS discovery - life work.

Now some scientists are stealing from him and claiming themselves as authors.
SHAME ON YOU! Shame on Imperial College allowing such disgrace! Please act immediately!

WE ARE NOT STUPID. WE KNOW THE TRUTH.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) May 19, 2014
Mehran Tavakoli Keshe studied at this university, wrote a book, published articles and talked on too many places about HIS discovery - life work.
Ah - so it was keshe who invented the hohlraum... I was trying to locate the source of this word.

So from another thread about waste heat from a Dyson sphere... Turning IR radiation into matter might be a way of disguising its presence yes?
EnricM
not rated yet May 19, 2014
The translation of Hohlraum is cringe-worthy. It shows a complete lack of understanding of how German composite words work.



And non-compsites too for that matter, "empty room" would be "leeres Zimmer"... so much for Google Translator, LOL.

Grüße!
vachtl
5 / 5 (3) May 19, 2014
The Keshe followers always make me smile :-)
vlaaing peerd
5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2014
actually we refer to Hohlraum as slutty German girls (sorry neighbours), but that's a different discussion.

I could be wrong, but during a CERN open day tour I understood the LEP experiment at CERN is already trying to create mass out of 2 photons by smashing charged particles. Apart from a gold sheet, this sounds pretty much the same ...
EnricM
5 / 5 (3) May 19, 2014
Mehran Tavakoli Keshe studied at this university, wrote a book, published articles and talked on too many places about HIS discovery - life work.
Ah - so it was keshe who invented the hohlraum... I was trying to locate the source of this word.

So from another thread about waste heat from a Dyson sphere... Turning IR radiation into matter might be a way of disguising its presence yes?


Let me guess: You are writing a sci-fi novel? ;)
TimLong2001
not rated yet May 19, 2014
SLAC has also done this. See link at www.photonstructure.com
Mayday
1 / 5 (1) May 19, 2014
If colliding photons can produce "new" matter, wouldn't this be happening all the time? And especially close to energetic photon sources like stars? It may be simple-minded on my part, but it seems that this could be a new explanation for the red-shift of a strong photon source at a distance. As some of the higher energy photons turn into matter, wouldn't this produce a red-shift that would increase with distance?
Pejico
May 19, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
katesisco
1 / 5 (2) May 19, 2014
I dont have anything to contribute but wonder about why we see the same discovery over and over again?
The globular clusters are far more interesting; centers collapse but don't? What is holding off the collapse? Magnetism?
big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2014
AKatedsisco, collapse of stellar objects is often prohibited (at varying stages of collapse) by the Pauli exclusion principle. Only in extreme cases does can this principle be overcome yielding exotic states of matter, such as Neutron stars, black holes etc. Read up on Quantum Mechanics for further info.

As for other posts, remember that the new thing here, is an actual experiment that verifies an 80 year old theory!! That is science, when observation (an experiment) verifies a theory. The problem in the past has been to establish an adequate experiment that matches how the theory says it works. The work done here is the first experiment to suggest a physical mechanism to be performed in the lab, which will allow the theory to be tested and verified.

slash
not rated yet May 20, 2014
This makes me wonder if waves are a fifth state of matter (in addition to solid, liquid, gas and plasma). I mean, if no other component gets in or out, then the resulting particles must still be the same original 'material' - just in a different state, no?
russell_russell
not rated yet May 20, 2014
Is the photon a 'suitcase'...hohlraum(!?) ...that 'carries' opposing but equal charges?
Photons do not decay. What is that 'carrier' or 'suitcase'? for quanta?
Is this transmutation?
Is a photon a fundamental building block?
On with the experiment experimentalists!
big_hairy_jimbo
not rated yet May 20, 2014
Interesting points made from the posters above me. At times, I like to think of electrons and positrons as "solidified" light.
swordsman
not rated yet May 20, 2014
Far out theory, but no data to back it up. They still do not understand the "photon".
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) May 20, 2014
Mehran Tavakoli Keshe studied at this university, wrote a book, published articles and talked on too many places about HIS discovery - life work.
Ah - so it was keshe who invented the hohlraum... I was trying to locate the source of this word.

So from another thread about waste heat from a Dyson sphere... Turning IR radiation into matter might be a way of disguising its presence yes?


Let me guess: You are writing a sci-fi novel? ;)
Just speculating on the results of previous and future searches for the waste heat signature of techno civilizations elsewhere.
http://home.fnal....arch.htm

-If they wanted to disguise their presence perhaps they could turn waste IR into matter. Kind of like a trash compactor only not really so much.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet May 20, 2014
Is the photon a 'suitcase'...hohlraum(!?) ...that 'carries' opposing but equal charges?
Photons do not decay. What is that 'carrier' or 'suitcase'? for quanta?
Is this transmutation?
Is a photon a fundamental building block?

Not opposing. The "suitcase" IS a single (variable) charge.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) May 20, 2014
Is a photon a fundamental building block?

It is the interchange particle for the EM force. As such it is considered one of the fundamental particles (there are others for the other forces).

Photons do not decay.

Sort of. The experiment proposes aims to render such an energy density that an electron/positron pair can form. Pretty much the reverse of what you get when you annihilate an electron with a positron (you get two gammas).
that 'carries' opposing but equal charges?

The photon itself has no charge. Hence the created matter must also be charge neutral (in sum). That is why a positron/electron pair is expected.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2014
The photon itself has no charge.

If it had no energy charge it would not be able to affect anything else, would it? IE heat, gamma , etc...
Not calling you on it, AA. Just asking a question...:-)
swordsman
not rated yet May 20, 2014
There is a conflict with the fundamental physics of electromagnetic radiation. By the Law of Superposition, electromagnetic fields pass through one another without any interaction. This is just a theory with not much to support it.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) May 20, 2014
If it had no energy charge it would not be able to affect anything else, would it?

It's an EM oscillation. So the net charge of a photon is zero. (A photon does have energy). It can be polarized in various ways, but the net charge is still zero.

That's basically the nature of all fundamental force carriers: They can't have the property they exchange. Otherwise you'd need yet another particle that could mediate between two force carrier particles ofthe same sort...and then THESE would be the fundamental particles...at infinitum. (read: photons don't interact with each other by emitting/absorbing photons. They superpose)
swordsman
not rated yet May 20, 2014
Bravo antialias! I have measured detected photon energies at low energies and have never detected and interaction. If there is any interaction, it must be very small in level.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2014
Good explanation, AA. Thanks. But that begs the next question - how are they going to smash "superposing" photons together to create matter?
RealityCheck
2.3 / 5 (3) May 20, 2014
Hi a_p. :) I am curious about your further 'take' on those two aspects in your answer to Whyde. Namely:

Non-Interaction & Superposition.

If photon is electromagnetic perturbation in pre-existing e-m 'field', then 'material' of 'oscillating e-m field' of TWO photons would interact/superpose to transiently form a 'composite' e-m 'feature' which is the 'instantaneous net resultant' of the two oscillatory 'materials' states combining constructively/destructively? Or not?

If so, what 'material' constructively/destructively 'adds' in that case to form that transient 'superposed' e-m 'feature'?

And is it the same 'material' that makes up pre-existing e-m field?

If so, what is pre-existing e-m field (and electrons/positrons) made of?

Not asserting anything. Just curious to know your view re 'material' constituent of both the transient 'superposed photons feature' and 'pre-existing e-m field' that they CAN 'add' constructively/destructively & 'superpose' at all?

Thanks, a_p. :)
javjav
not rated yet May 20, 2014
What's new is that the experiment won't need to use any other particles in the creation of matter from energy.


What would be new is the creation of matter "from light", not "from energy".

Other methods have been proposed to create matter without the need of more particles, just by separating virtual particles (using a lot of energy in the process). Interestingly, at least one of them uses "light" for it: http://www.newsci...pWPma-nQ
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet May 21, 2014
Actually, RC, that wasn't a half bad set of questions...
Just try not to bring up BOT ranking or how your TOE (that you have yet to even hint at)explains it
Benni
not rated yet May 21, 2014
What's new is that the experiment won't need to use any other particles in the creation of matter from energy.


What would be new is the creation of matter "from light", not "from energy".


"Light" & "energy" are both electromagnetism (energy). "Light" is specifically found between the wavelengths of red & blue on the electro-magnetic spectrum, all other colors are found in wavelengths varying between the red & blue wavelengths of light colors. We cannot see the full spectrum of the red (the infrared part) & blue (the ultraviolet part) wavelengths.
scottfos
not rated yet May 21, 2014
dumb question (i already know it's dumb so don't tell me again, but i cannot find the answer) - why gold?

"They would then fire these electrons into a slab of gold to create a beam of photons a billion times more energetic than visible light.

The next stage of the experiment involves a tiny gold can called a hohlraum (German for 'empty room'). Scientists would fire a high-energy laser at the inner surface of this gold can, to create a thermal radiation field, generating light similar to the light emitted by stars."
javjav
not rated yet May 22, 2014
"Light" & "energy" are both electromagnetism (energy)


Wrong. "Energy" is a much more general concept than "light". You may have Kinetic energy, potential energy, Dark Energy, EM, etc.. Saying "Convert energy into matter" has not the same meaning as "Convert light into matter".
javjav
not rated yet May 22, 2014
"Light" & "energy" are both electromagnetism (energy)


Wrong. "Energy" is a much more general concept than "light". You may have Kinetic energy, potential energy, Dark Energy, EM, etc.. Saying "Convert energy into matter" has not the same meaning as "Convert light into matter".

In another example, the LHC converts kinetic "Energy" into matter, but it does not convert "light" into matter.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) May 22, 2014
In another example, the LHC converts kinetic "Energy" into matter, but it does not convert "light" into matter.

Simple answer to the whole quandary - The researchers and/or article author used the wrong word...
Pejico
May 22, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
hopper
not rated yet May 23, 2014
Since it procedure creates an electron -- can this be used to create more efficient photovoltaic cells?
Lex Talonis
3 / 5 (2) May 23, 2014
I have been creating matter from empty space for many years.

I just open a worm hole in Uranus and matter appears.
mytwocts
not rated yet May 24, 2014
There is a conflict with the fundamental physics of electromagnetic radiation. By the Law of Superposition, electromagnetic fields pass through one another without any interaction. This is just a theory with not much to support it.

The superposition principle no longer holds in QED. An electron positron pair can annihilate into two photons. The reverse process will create an electron positron pair out of two photons.
PhotonX
not rated yet May 25, 2014
dumb question (i already know it's dumb so don't tell me again, but i cannot find the answer) - why gold?
Maybe a dumb question, but I'd like to know too. Of course it brings Rutherford's gold foil experiment immediately to mind, when he used gold foil because it's ductility was so high that the extremely thin material he required could literally be pounded out. But the terminology used in the article, a 'slab' of gold, doesn't sound at all like ductility has any bearing on it. So, anyone who can explain is welcome.
Pejico
May 25, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) May 25, 2014
Maybe a dumb question, but I'd like to know too.

Maybe it's simply because gold doesn't tarnish. You want a pure spectrum, and any kind of impurity on the surface may degrade the result of the experiment.
Pejico
May 25, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.