Three theoretical physicists say scientists will be able to make matter out of pure light* within the next year – using today's technology.
The idea of making matter out of light sounds far-fetched, but it’s an important prediction from the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and it's the same process that was in play during the first hundred seconds of the Universe.
In 1934, two US scientists – Gregory Breit and John Wheeler – described a theoretical way of how simply smashing together two photons would create an electron and a positron, although they wrote at the time that they thought it unlikely it would be achieved in a lab.
The pair of physicists reckoned this would be the very simplest method to turn light into matter. The maths worked out, but the technology just didn’t exist to attempt an experimental proof.
Now boffins from Imperial College London, and one from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics who was visiting the UK, claim to have come up with a way to do it in just one day “over several cups of coffee”.
They were working on fusion energy, but realised that their work could be applied to the Breit-Wheeler theory. They propose a new kind of high-energy physics experiment – a photon-photon collider. First, scientists would use an extremely powerful high-intensity laser to speed electrons up to just below the speed of light. Firing these electrons into a slab of gold would create a beam of photons a billion times more energetic than visible light.