Physicists Accelerate Light to near Infinite Speed

Science and technology in the 21st Century is rapidly fulfilling the visions of the science fiction writers of the 20th Century. It seems barely a week passes without some amazing new discovery, revelation, or feat.

Recently, scientists announced the once thought impossible attainment of achieving a temperature below absolute zero by employing a trick of quantum physics in a powerful magnetic field.

Checklist of the impossible

Renown futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke once created a list of the “impossible” in his classic science book, “Report on Planet Three.”

Things that have been assumed impossible include:

1. Perpetual motion machines.

2. Time travel to the past.

3. Breaking the faster-than-light speed limit.

Whoops…scratch number three. Light’s just been accelerated to near infinite speed.

Using the exotic materials created in the world of metametals—artificial composites with incredible properties beyond those created naturally—physicists crafted a minuscule bar of glass encompassed by silver.  

By tweaking the refractive properties within the bar, light’s normal speed of 186,000 miles per second was altered.

According to a report about the stunning accomplishment, New Scientist explains: “The new material contains a nano-scale structure that guides light waves through the metal-coated glass. It is the first with a refractive index below 0.1, which means that light passes through it at almost infinite speed…”

But technically, the speed of light hasn’t been surpasses even though it has been accelerated to near infinite velocity, according to Netherlands scientist Albert Polman at the FOM Institute AMOLF in Amsterdam. Polman explained that the experiment permitted the light wave to move faster while the light’s “group velocity” remained near zero. In the physics of light waves are measured by groups and the information each group is carrying.

The research lead author Polman and his team did, “Experimental Verification of n=0 Structures for Visible Light,” is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

This breakthrough in low-index materials and their effect on light waves has exciting technological applications for a host of products including the ability to rapidly send bursts of light across tiny distances. Polman sees nanoscale optical integrated circuits applications that could revolutionize information technology.

The American Physical Society has weighed in on the experiment in their associated opinion article, “Viewpoint: Metal-Coated Waveguide Stretches Wavelengths to Infinity.” In the article, Wenshan Cai of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and School of Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology discusses the importance of the breakthrough and the meaning to the understanding of the properties of light.

Cai observes: “Once again, the ever-evolving field of nanophotonics challenges our traditional understanding of optics, and offers unconventional means to manipulate light waves.”

That’s one small step for Man, one (almost) infinite leap for light waves.