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

May 20, 2014
Theories describing light and matter interactions

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 theorized by scientists G. Breit and J. Wheeler in 1934.

Breit and Wheeler suggested that it should be possible to turn light 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 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.

Demonstrating the Breit-Wheeler theory would provide the final jigsaw piece of a physics puzzle that describes the simplest ways in which light and matter interact. 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.

How it would work

Proposed experimental setup of photon-photon collider (credit: O. J. Pike et al./Nature Photonics)

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.


A hohlraum used at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in experiments intended to achieve a fusion reaction (credit: Eduard Dewald/LLNL)

They would then direct the photon beam from the first stage of the experiment through the center 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.

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.

Abstract of Nature Photonics paper

The ability to create matter from light is amongst the most striking predictions of quantum electrodynamics. Experimental signatures of this have been reported in the scattering of ultra-relativistic electron beams with laser beams, intense laser–plasma interactions and laser-driven solid target scattering. However, all such routes involve massive particles. The simplest mechanism by which pure light can be transformed into matter, Breit–Wheeler pair production (γγ′ right arrow e+e), has never been observed in the laboratory. Here, we present the design of a new class of photon–photon collider in which a gamma-ray beam is fired into the high-temperature radiation field of a laser-heated hohlraum. Matching experimental parameters to current-generation facilities, Monte Carlo simulations suggest that this scheme is capable of producing of the order of 105 Breit–Wheeler pairs in a single shot. This would provide the first realization of a pure photon–photon collider, representing the advent of a new type of high-energy physics experiment.