Friday, July 26, 2013

Light stopped for a minute

New Scientist reports: [edited]

While light normally travels at just under 300 million metres per second in a vacuum, physicists managed to slow it down to just 17 metres per second in 1999 and then halt it completely two years later, though only for a fraction of a second. Earlier this year, researchers kept it still for 16 seconds using cold atoms.

To break the minute barrier, George Heinze and colleagues at the University of Darmstadt, Germany, fired a control laser at an opaque crystal, sending its atoms into a quantum superposition of two states. This made it transparent to a narrow range of frequencies. Heinze's team then halted a second beam that entered the crystal by switching off the first laser and hence the transparency.

The storage time depends on the crystal's superposition. A magnetic field extends it but complicates the control laser configuration. Heinze's team used an algorithm to "breed" combinations of magnet and laser, leading them to one that trapped light for a minute.

At full pelt, light would travel about 18 million kilometres in that time – that's more than 20 round trips to the moon. "One minute is extremely, extremely long," says Thomas Krauss at the University of St Andrews, UK. "This is a major milestone."

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