Physicists from London’s Imperial College may have stumbled across a way of testing the Breit-Wheeler process, which could lead to a very basic Star Trek replicator.

So far, humanity has done a pretty good job of creating most of the technologies seen in Star Trek, to the point that even hyperdrives aren’t necessarily far-fetched. Still, if any one advancement seemed out of reach, it was the 24th Century replicators that created solid matter from thin air. According to scientists from Imperial College’s Blackett Physics Laboratory however, we may be closer to that reality than we ever realized. While working on an unrelated problem involving fusion energy, three physicists stumbled across an experimental process of turning light into matter that appears to be well within the limits of our current technology.

The concept of turning light into matter is nothing new. First proposed as the Breit-Wheeler process, it’s considered theoretically possible for light to turn directly into matter, although its creators didn’t believe it could be verified in a lab. In 1997, scientists discovered a roundabout solution by generating continuous particle collisions within a chamber, but it wasn’t the 1-1 light-to-matter process Breit and Wheeler described. This new experiment, on the other hand, suggests a far more direct route: Firing powerful lasers at a gold vessel to turn photons into electrons and positrons.

“Despite all physicists accepting the theory to be true, when Breit and Wheeler first proposed the theory, they said that they never expected it be shown in the laboratory,” said Imperial College’s Professor Steve Rose. “Today, nearly 80 years later, we prove them wrong. What was so surprising to us was the discovery of how we can create matter directly from light using the technology that we have today in the UK. As we are theorists we are now talking to others who can use our ideas to undertake this landmark experiment.”

All this is very exciting, but we shouldn’t start lining up for our replicators just yet. Even if the matter created from this process wasn’t less than microscopic, the apparatus needed to complete the experiment hasn’t been created yet. An appropriate photon collider still needs to be developed, although lead researcher Oliver Pike says that’s an easy issue to resolve. “We were able to develop the idea for the collider very quickly,” Pike explained, “but the experimental design we propose can be carried out with relative ease and with existing technology.”

If the theory behind this experiment proves true, it should have huge implications for theoretical and applied sciences. The process occurring within this “photon-photon” collider would recreate events from the first 100 seconds of our universe, not to mention the effects of gamma ray bursts on a small scale. On the practical side, the ability to create matter from light has several applications, even if it isn’t possible to design a literal Star Trek replicator.

But if we do get to that point? At the very least, it would blow the concept of 3D printing right out of the water.

Source: Nature Photonics

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