Scientists create material for… lightsabers?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

We’re still a long ways away from shopping for real lightsabers, but Harvard and MIT certainly have our hopes up!

Who better to create Star Wars lightsabers than the brilliant minds at Harvard and MIT? Alright, so maybe no one’s going to be flicking their Jedi blades to life in epic battles against Sith Lords anytime soon, but a team of researchers have managed to convince photons (tiny pieces of light) to bind together like molecules (itsy bitsy chemical pieces).

Why’s that a big deal? Well, before this achievement, photons were considered to have no real mass (thickness). For instance, if you shine two laser beams at each other, they just pass right through one another. However, these photonic molecules can actually bump into other photons like them.

“Most of the properties of light we know about originate from the fact that photons are massless, and that they do not interact with each other,” said Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin. “What we have done is create a special type of medium in which photons interact with each other so strongly that they begin to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules. This type of photonic bound state has been discussed theoretically for quite a while, but until now it hadn’t been observed.” In other words, lots of scientists knew it was maybe possible to make light thicker, but no one had actually pulled it off!

Now, are we just being silly by comparing this to Star Wars? Wishful thinking? Nope! Lukin adds that it’s not wrong to “compare this to light sabers” and that when these new kinds of photons are beamed at each other, “they’re pushing against and deflect” in a way that’s “similar to what we see in the movies.”

In order to create this amazing effect, the researchers basically mixed together laser photons with little things called atoms, creating a special energy cloud. When the photons travel through the cloud, it slows them down, and energy bounces around from atom to atom. When Lukin and his team fired two photons into the cloud, they came out as one single molecule! In other words, they were now thicker and joined together in ways that behaved like objects with mass.

If this technique can be perfected, the Harvard and MIT researchers hope to create a way to send information around the world faster. After all, what’s speedier than light? As to whether they’ll create lightsabers… well, Star Wars fans can only dream for now…

Featured image courtesy of Sangwon Kim, Famin Qiu, Samhwan Kim, Ali Ghanbari, Cheil Moon, Li Zhang, Bradley J. Nelson, and Hongsoo Choi and Advanced Materials. Video courtesy of Blind Wave Productions.