It's easy to shine light through a crystal, but researchers at Princeton University are turning light into crystals--essentially creating "solid light."
"It's something that we have never seen before," Dr. Andrew Houck, associate professor of electrical engineering and one of the researchers, said in a written statement issued by the university. "This is a new behavior for light."
New behavior is right. For generations, physics students have been taught that photons--the subatomic particles that make up light--don't interact with each other. But the researchers were able to make photons interact very strongly.
To make that happen, the researchers assembled a structure of 100 billion atoms of superconducting material to create a sort of "artificial atom." Then they placed the structure near a superconducting wire containing photons, which--as a result of the strange rules of quantum entanglement--caused the photons to take on some of the characteristics of the artificial atom.
"We have used this blending together of the photons and the atom to artificially devise strong interactions among the photons," Darius Sadri, a postdoctoral researcher at the university and another one of the researchers, said in the statement. "These interactions then lead to completely new collective behavior for light--akin to the phases of matter, like liquids and crystals, studied in condensed matter physics."
Pretty complicated stuff for sure. But what exactly is the point of the ongoing research?
One point is to work toward development of exotic materials, including room-temperature superconductors. Those are hypothetical materials that scientists believe could be used to create ultrasensitive sensors and computers of unprecedented speed--and which might even help solve the world's energy problems.
"This work is not going to lead to a lightsaber," Houck joked in an email to The Huffington Post, "unless you are speaking of a metaphorical tool that will cut through our veil of ignorance like a lightsaber through a tauntaun."
A paper describing the research on "solid light" was published online Sept. 8 in the journal Physical Review X.