Scientists Have Found A Way To Turn Light Into Matter And Prove An 80-Year-Old Theory

A photon source at the CERN (European Organization For Nuclear Research). Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Physicists have discovered a practical way to create matter from light, a feat thought impossible when the idea was first theorised 80 years ago.

Over several cups of coffee in one day in a tiny office at Imperial College London‘s Blackett Physics Laboratory, three physicists worked out a relatively simple way to prove a theory first devised by scientists Breit and Wheeler in 1934.

They were looking at unrelated problems in fusion energy when they realised what they were working on could be applied to the Breit-Wheeler theory. The three: Imperial College’s Steve Rose and Oliver Pike, and visiting fellow theoretical physicist Felix Mackenroth from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Breit and Wheeler suggested it should be possible to turn light into matter by smashing together 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 they didn’t expected anybody to physically demonstrate their prediction.

This new research, published in the journal Nature Photonics, shows how the theory could be proven in practice.

A ‘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.

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 proposed collider experiment has two steps. First, a high-intensity laser is used to push the speed electrons to just below the speed of light. These electrons are then fired 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’). A high-energy laser is then fired at the inner surface of this gold can to create a thermal radiation field, generating light similar to the light emitted by stars.

The photon beam from the first stage of the experiment is then fired 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 exit 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 fusion energy 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.”

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), and was carried out in collaboration with Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik.

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