E=mc Alive: Simulating Matter Creation From Laser Light

Osaka University researchers have simulated photon-photon collisions with lasers, potentially paving the way for creating matter from light in labs. This advance in quantum physics holds promise for understanding the composition of the universe and discovering new physics. (Artist’s concept.) Credit: SciTechDaily.com

A team led by researchers at Osaka University and UC, San Diego used simulations to show how one can experiment with matter from just light, which in the future may help test long-term theories of the composition of the universe.

One of the most amazing predictions of quantum physics is that matter can only be made of light (ie, photons), and indeed, astronomical bodies known as pulsars achieve this feat. Direct creation of matter in this way has not yet been achieved in a laboratory, but it can further test theories of basic quantum physics and the fundamental composition of the universe.

In a study recently published in Physical Review Lettersa group led by researchers at Osaka University simulated the conditions that could photon-photon collision, only by using lasers. The simplicity of the setup and ease of implementation at currently available laser intensities make it a promising candidate for near-future experimental implementation.

Self-Organized Photon Collider

Image of a self-organized photon collider driven by an intense laser pulse propagating a plasma. Credit: Yasuhiko Sentoku

Photon–photon collisions are believed to be a fundamental way in which matter is created in the universe, and it derives from Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. In fact, researchers do not directly create matter from light: through high-speed acceleration of metal ions such as gold to each other. At such high speeds, each ion is surrounded by photons, and as they pass each other, matter and antimatter are created.

However, it is difficult to create the experimental object in modern laboratories by the sole use of laser light because of the high power lasers required. Replicating how this feat can be achieved in a laboratory could lead to an experimental breakthrough, so that’s what the researchers plan to do.

“Our simulations show that, when interacting with the laser’s intense electromagnetic fields, dense plasma can organize itself to form a photon-photon collider,” explained Dr. Sugimoto, lead author of the study. “This collider has a dense population of gamma rays, ten times denser than the density of plasma electrons and whose energy is a million times greater than the energy of laser photons.”

Self-Organized Photon Collider Driven by an Intense Laser Pulse

Self-organized photon collider driven by an intense laser pulse (a) plasma density, (b) magnetic channel, (c) angular distribution of emitted photons. Credit: Physical Review Letters

Photon-photon collisions in the collider produce electron-positron pairs, and the positrons are accelerated by a plasma electric field created by the laser. This results in a positron beam.

“This is the first simulation of the acceleration of positrons from the linear Breit-Wheeler process under relativistic conditions,” said Prof Arefiev, co-author at UCSD. “We feel that our proposal is feasible experimentally, and we look forward to implementation in the real world.” Dr Vyacheslav Lukin, a program director of the US National Science Foundation that supports the work, says “This research shows a potential way to explore the mysteries of the universe in a laboratory setting. The future possibilities of today’s and tomorrow’s high-power laser facilities become more interesting.

The applications of this work to Star Trek’s fictional matter–energy conversion technology remain just that: fiction. However, this work has the potential to help experimentally confirm theories of the composition of the universe, or perhaps even help discover previously unknown physics.

Reference: “Positron Generation and Acceleration in a Self-Organized Photon Collider Enabled by an Ultraintense Laser Pulse” by K. Sugimoto, Y. He, N. Iwata, IL. Yeh, K. Tangtartharakul, A. Arefiev and Y. Sentoku, 9 August 2023, Physical Review Letters.
DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.131.065102

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