Eighty years after a tandem of two physicists came up with the theory that light particles, or photons, can be turned into matter, a team of British scientists are attempting to prove the theory right. Oliver Pike of the Imperial College London has put a team together to use high-energy lasers to react with a carefully crafted gold vessel to convert light, known as photons, in both matter and antimatter.
As the leading researcher, Pike, who is published in the journal Nature Photonics, stated, “The idea is that light goes in and matter come out.” While the claim may sound almost rudimentary, Pike speaks further on the notion that what will be produced out of photons are sub-atomic particles. He explained that the matter at the consummation of the experiment will consist of electrons and its opposing equivalent of antimatter positrons. Though, with the high energy output of the lasers, heavier particles can possibly be created.
In 1934, U.S. physicists John Wheeler and Gregory Breit came up with the original theory; however, it was dismissed due to the engineering difficulties of the much less advanced technology of the early twentieth century.
This is not the first attempt of proving both Wheeler and Breit’s theory. In 1997, a research team at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre (SLAC), in another quest to turn light into matter, executed a successful experiment, though in a different fashion. The SLAC team first used electrons to form light particles. Then the high-energy photons were subjected to collisions to produce electrons and antimatter positrons, all in one motion. This way of conducting the experiment is known as the multi-photon Breit-Wheeler process, the way in which the two physicists theorized the process in 1934.
Pike stated that the way in which his experiment will differ from SLAC is, “The laser beam will still be generated using free electrons, but will be separated from the electrons.” Using Pike’s more straightforward approach, instead of using electrons to create light and then reversing the process, they will be able to conduct the process in a “cleaner” more efficient way.
Currently, researchers, along with particle physicists, use massive collisions with high-energy applications to conduct similar experiments, most notably, the 22 kilometer-long Large Hadron Collider. Pike’s team seeks to use a much smaller and much simpler application. The experiment will use a small gold hohlraum (German for “empty room”) into which the laser beam will send its intense energy. In the hohlraum, individual photon particles will react with the radiation generated by gold under duress from the energy of the laser, creating the electrons and antimatter positrons. Moreover, with such a small area of particle action, researchers will be able to measure the reaction fairly easily.
There are three more facilities that have the engineering capability to conduct the same photon-to-matter experiment. Therefore, some competition may arise in the coming months and years. Though scientists are not on the brink of a discovery to create usable, everyday objects from light, the experiment, literally and metaphorically, sheds light into a novel way of transfixing light into something many thought was hitherto impossible. In the quest to create matter from light, the British band of researchers may be the bright beacon of ability to make it a success.
By: Alex Lemieux