Observation of twisted optical beam traveling slower than the speed of light

March 24, 2016

Researchers at the University of Ottawa observed that twisted light in a vacuum travels slower than the universal physical constant established as the speed of light by Einstein's theory of relativity. Twisted light, which turns around its axis of travel much like a corkscrew, holds great potential for storing information for quantum computing and communications applications.

In The Optical Society's journal for high impact research, Optica, the researchers report that twisted light pulses in a vacuum travel up to 0.1 percent slower than the speed of light, which is 299,792,458 meters per second. Although light does slow down when traveling through clear dense materials such glass or water, this is the first time that scientists have shown that twisting light can slow it down.

"Anyone who wants to use twisted light for quantum communication should be aware of this effect," said Ebrahim Karimi, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and leader of the research team. "If they don't compensate for the slow-light effect, information coded on twisted light might not arrive in the right order. Propagation speeds can significantly affect many protocols related to quantum communication."

Benefits of twisted light

Most people are familiar with the solid spot found in laser pointers created by Gaussian laser beams. In contrast, the corkscrew shape of twisted light creates a donut shape when shone on a surface. The light can carry an infinite number of twists over one wavelength.

Karimi and Frederic Bouchard, a graduate student in Karimi's lab and the paper's first author, are studying twisted light because of its great potential for and quantum computers. Today, light is used to encode information by either varying the number of photons emitted or switching between light's two polarization states. Twisted light offers the advantage that each twist can encode a different value or letter, allowing the encoding of a great deal more information using less light. Twisted light might one day offer a quantum-based communication method that uses less energy and is more secure than today's methods.

The researchers first noticed the slow speed of twisted light when conducting experiments with Gaussian laser light and light with 10 twists. "We realized that the two beams didn't arrive at the detector at the same time," Karimi said. "The twisted light was slower, which was surprising until we realized that the twists make the beam tilt slightly as it propagates. This tilt means that the twisted light beam doesn't take the straightest, and thus fastest, path between two points."

Measuring the delay

Once the scientists understood that the time delay came from the twisted nature of the light, they set about the challenging task of measuring the delay, which they calculated to be on the order of tenths of a femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second). After a year of searching for a capable measurement method, they connected with nonlinear optics scientists who suggested they modify an approach known as frequency-resolved optical gating (FROG) that is used to measure ultrashort laser pulses.

Using the modified FROG approach, Karimi's research team worked with Robert Boyd's team, also at the University of Ottawa, to compare Gaussian beams with different types of twisted light. They found that increasing the number of twists further slowed the light. They measured delays as long as 23 femtoseconds for the twisted light beams.

"The type of precision that can be measured using FROG was not previously used in the quantum optics community, and thus scientists in this area were not aware that traveled slower than the speed of light," Karimi said.

If it's possible to slow the speed of light by altering its structure, it may also be possible to speed up light. The researchers are now planning to use FROG to measure other types of structured light that their calculations have predicted may travel around 1 femtosecond faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

Explore further: Laser beams with a 'twist'

More information: Frédéric Bouchard et al. Observation of subluminal twisted light in vacuum, Optica (2016). DOI: 10.1364/optica.3.000351

Related Stories

Laser beams with a 'twist'

March 15, 2016

(University of the Witwatersrand) Using geometric phase inside lasers for the first time, researchers find a way to change the orbital angular momentum of laser beams.

Novel beams made of twisted atoms

August 7, 2013

Physicists have, for the first time, now built a theoretical construct of beams made of twisted atoms. These findings by Armen Hayrapetyan and colleagues at Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg in Germany are about to be ...

Research boosts optical fiber data speeds

October 16, 2015

In the latest advance to boost the speed of the Internet, a research team including, the City College of New York, University of Southern California, University of Glasgow, and Corning Incorporated, has demonstrated a way ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover new rules for quasicrystals

October 25, 2016

Crystals are defined by their repeating, symmetrical patterns and long-range order. Unlike amorphous materials, in which atoms are randomly packed together, the atoms in a crystal are arranged in a predictable way. Quasicrystals ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Reg Mundy
1 / 5 (3) Mar 24, 2016
Quelle surpris! I don't suppose this will have any relationship with so-called "gravitic lensing".
5 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2016
I question that there can be an "infinite" number of twists in one wavelength, there is obviously an energy consideration that would provide an ultimate upper limit. It may be very large, but not infinite.
4.8 / 5 (5) Mar 24, 2016
Meh. Sounds like the age old confusion between group velocity (velocity of signals, which upper speed is the universal speed limit; https://en.wikipe...velocity ) and phase velocity of signal components (velocity of dispersed components, which upper speed limit is the universal speed limit only in the case of a non-dispersive medium; https://en.wikipe...velocity ).

People have long played tricks with the latter, showing that some setups can generate speeds faster than the universal speed limit, since it doesn't apply. Same as when you rotate a light so that the speed it illuminates a wall looks superluminal, something that can be seen in astronomical jet observations. [See the last link for examples.]

Publishable, news, but not as important as the press release wants to imply.

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.