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Photon-photon collider will turn light into matter

Photon-photon collider will turn light into matter
Photon-photon collider will turn light into matter
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

In 1934 researchers posited that there was a way to turn light into matter. If their ideas were right, the possibilities were endless; pure light could be turned into physical things before our eyes. Today it seems that the original method might work.

80 years ago Gregory Breit and John Wheeler predicted that smashing two photons together at high speed would transform the two massless light particles into two particles with mass: an electron and a positron, the electron's antimatter equivalent. Breit and Wheeler couldn't prove their theory, and the rare phenomenon has never been observed in a laboratory setting. However, a research team at the Imperial College of London now has a proposed technique that may provide the answer.

These three physicists led by Oliver Pike have invented the “photon-photon collider” which replicates the Breit-Wheeler production technique while adding particles with mass into the process. The team contends that this machine and the newer process with the addition of particles with mass allows the process to happen in the cleanest way possible.

The photon-photon collider works in two steps. First, it speeds up electrons in the form of a high-intensity laser until they are nearly at light speed. The electrons are then used to create a beam of photons by firing them at a slab of gold. This process results in a beam of photons that are a billion times more energetic than light speed.

In the second step, a different high-energy laser is directed into a hohlraum, a small canister made of gold. This step results in a field of thermal radiation which emits light similar to starlight. Finally, photons from both sources then collide inside the hohlraum, and this results in the formation of about 100,000 electron-positron pairs. These pairs can be detected upon leaving the hohlraum.

Basically, what is happening inside the collider is a demonstration of Einstein's famous E=mc² formula; again, not a new theory, just a novel expression of it. The researchers plan to conduct the experiment within the next year.

Does this mean that in a year or two we'll be beaming ourselves dinner and new shoes? No. Simply producing matter is a far cry from even basic molecular assembly, for example. But this is the next step in the road.