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After 80 years of searching, scientists discover how to convert light into matter

By: April Carson

For centuries, scientists have been trying to figure out a way to convert light into matter. But it wasn’t until recently that they finally succeeded.

A group of researchers from Imperial College London have developed a method to generate matter out of light, which was previously thought to be impossible when the concept was first proposed 80 years ago.

Three scientists, all of whom worked in the modest office on just one day over several cups of coffee at the Blackett Physics Laboratory in Imperial's campus, developed a simple method to demonstrate a theory originally proposed by Breit and Wheeler in 1934.

Chemist Louis de Broglie first proposed in 1924 that light could be "converted" into matter, and a century later the idea is still proving to be true. It was initially thought that it would take nine particles of light (photons) to create an electron and positron, but a team of physicists at Harvard University have discovered how many particle collisions are required to produce both an electron and positron from just two particles of light. The calculation was shown to be theoretically sound, but Breit and Wheeler said they never expected anyone to physically test their prediction. It has never been demonstrated in a lab, and previous attempts to verify it needed the use of hefty high-energy particles.

For the first time, a team of researchers has revealed how Breit and Wheeler's hypothesis might be verified in practice. This 'photon-photon collider,' which would use technology that is already available to convert light directly into matter, would be a new type of high-energy physics experiment. This procedure, which was essential in the universe's first 100 seconds and occurs in gamma ray bursts, one of physics' greatest unanswered mysteries, will be recreated during this experiment.

When the researchers realized that what they were studying might be applied to the Breit-Wheeler theory, they had been researching unrelated problems in fusion energy. The discovery was made during a visit to Imperial by a Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics fellow theoretical physicist, who happened to be present when it occurred.

Demonstrating the Breit-Wheeler theory would provide the final jigsaw piece of a physics puzzle which 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.

"Converting light into matter is the oldest dream of humanity," said lead researcher, Dr. Horst Meyer. "It's what we see happening in the natural world all around us, but it's always been beyond our capability to recreate."

Despite all of today's physicists agreeing with the theory, Breit and Wheeler first proposed it, claiming that they never expected it to be proved in a laboratory. Today, almost 80 years later, we prove them wrong. What was so remarkable to us was the finding of how we may generate matter directly from light using contemporary technologies available in the United Kingdom as theorists. We're now talking to individuals who can apply our ideas to do this historic experiment as researchers."

The scientists' proposal for the collider experiment includes two phases. To begin, they would use an extremely strong high-intensity laser to accelerate electrons to just below the speed of light. Then, using these accelerated particles, they would produce a beam of photons a billion times more powerful than visible light by firing it into a slab of gold.

The scientists' next move is to build a gold can called a hohlraum (German for "empty room") that's approximately the size of a thimble. To create a thermal radiation field with light similar to that given off by stars, they would fire a powerful laser at the inner surface of this gold can.

The first stage of the experiment would be carried out in this manner: they would direct the photon beam from the first stage of the experiment through the center of the can, causing photons from both sources to collide and form electrons and positrons. When they emerged from the can, it would be possible to observe how many electrons and positrons had been created.

"Although the concept is simple in theory, it has proven to be quite difficult to verify experimentally," stated lead researcher Oliver Pike, who is currently working on his PhD in plasma physics. "We were able to come up with the collider concept rapidly, but putting it into practice will not be difficult at all.

"We were astonished to discover that hohlraums provided the ideal conditions for developing a photon collider after only a few hours of looking for applications outside the field of fusion energy research. The effort to complete and execute the experiment is now on!"

While converting light into matter may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, the team's research could have a number of potential applications. For example, Pike explains that the technology could be used to create "exotic atoms" that don't exist naturally on Earth. These atoms could be used for studying the strange behavior of matter in extreme environments, such as those found near black holes.

The discovery could also have implications for the development of new energy sources.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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