Remember that scene in "The Force Awakens" where the dark side warrior Kylo Ren stops a laser blast in mid-air? In a Canberra laboratory, physicists have managed a feat almost as magical: they froze the movement of light in a cloud of ultracold atoms. This discovery could help bring optical quantum computers from the realms of sci-fi to reality.
The experiment, published in a paper this week, was inspired by a computer stimulation run by lead researcher Jesse Everett from the Australian National University. The researchers used a vaporized cloud of ultracold rubidium atoms to create a light trap, into which they shone infrared lasers. The light trap constantly emitted and re-captured the light.
"It's clear that the light is trapped – there are photons circulating around the atoms," Everett says. "The atoms absorbed some of the trapped light, but a substantial proportion of the photons were frozen inside the atomic cloud."
This is not the first time physicists have stopped light, but it is the first experiment that was designed to prove beyond doubt that the trapped light was rendered stationary. The atomic cloud was imaged from the side as one method of confirming the theory.
Knowing that scientists can now stop the movement of light is an exciting development because it could allow the interactions of light and atoms to be manipulated with the extreme precision needed to develop quantum logic gates – the building blocks of the quantum computer model.
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