Researchers find a way to distort laser light to survive a trip through disordered obstacles.
- Lasers are great for measuring—if they can get a clear view of their target.
- In biomedical applications, there's often disordered stuff in the way of objects needing measurement.
- A new technique leverages that disorder to formulate a custom-made, optimal laser light beam.
Lasers can make amazingly precise measurements. Invaluable for precision construction and manufacturing, they also allow biomedical researchers and doctors to accurately detect the position and movement of microscopic objects, from cells to tissues to tiny biological structures. That is, when the laser can get a direct shot at the target, which is often not possible. In the human body, for example, these objects may be partially obscured by, situated in, or even behind complicated, obfuscating stuff.
Now scientists from Utrecht University (Netherlands) and TU Wien in Austria have devised a cool way to alter lasers so that they can bounce right through such distortion fields, arriving on the other side as an "optimal wave" intact enough to get to work.
Their new system is described in the journal Nature Physics.
Understanding the problem
Credit: gavran333/Adobe Stock
When working with lasers or any other measurement tool, "You always want to achieve the best possible measurement accuracy — that's a central element of all natural sciences," says paper co-author Stefan Rotter of TU Wien in a press release. A highly focused laser beam is an ideal tool for this. However, getting it through a disordered barrier without destroying the integrity of the beam is a challenge.
The researchers describe the problem using the example of the type of frosted glass one might encounter in a bathroom window. Explains Utrecht University's Allan Mosk, another co-author, "Let's imagine a panel of glass that is not perfectly transparent, but rough and unpolished like a bathroom window." To keep people from seeing into the bathroom, "Light can pass through, but not in a straight line. The light waves are altered and scattered, so we can't accurately see an object on the other side of the window with the naked eye."
This is not very different from what happens when a scientist tries to examine some tiny object inside biological tissue. The disordered stuff between the scientist and the object turns the concentrated laser beam into a complex wave pattern that scatters on its way through the visual barrier.
The new solution
Credit: TU Wien
The researchers have found that they can modify a laser's light in anticipation of the way it will travel through the disordered environment so that it hits its target on the other side with sufficient coherence for making accurate measurements.
While that optimal wave may not be a pure, pristine laser light, it's nonetheless just the light wave needed to successfully make its way through that particular barrier. The researchers were able to develop a mathematical procedure that gives them the distortion required to produce such a wave. Says first author Dorian Bouchet, also of Utrecht University, "You can show that for various measurements there are certain waves that deliver a maximum of information as, e.g., on the spatial coordinates at which a certain object is located."
Bouchet adds, "To achieve this, you don't even need to know exactly what the disturbances are. It's enough to first send a set of trial waves through the system to study how they are changed by [it]."
Returning to the glazed bathroom window example, the system would identify an optimal light wave that could travel through the disordered glass and still accurately measure movement of a person behind the glass.
Testing the system
The researchers confirmed that their formula worked in experiments at Utrecht in which they were able to make nano-scale measurements using a laser that successfully transited a turbid plate playing the role of a disordered medium. They also tried simpler and simpler laser beams—reducing the number of photons being used—to see how far they could push their system. They found that it even with the simplest laser possible, it still performed satisfactorily.
Says Mosk, "We see that the precision of our method is only limited by the so-called quantum noise. This noise results from the fact that light consists of photons—nothing can be done about that." Still, he says, "within the limits of what quantum physics allows us to do for a coherent laser beam, we can actually calculate the optimal waves to measure different things. Not only the position, but also the movement or the direction of rotation of objects."
Researchers devise a record-breaking laser transmission that avoids atmospheric interference.
- Researchers from Australia and France team up for a record-breaking laser transmission.
- The new technique avoids atmospheric interference.
- It can be used to test aspects of Einstein's theory of relativity and advance communications.
Scientists achieved the most stable transmission of a laser signal through the atmosphere ever made, beating a world record. The team managed to send laser signals from one point to another while avoiding interference from the atmosphere. Their very precise method can allow for unprecedented comparisons of the flow of time in separate locations. This can enable scientists to carry out new tests of Einstein's celebrated theory of general relativity, and have wide applications across different fields.
For the record transmission, the researchers combined phase stabilization technology with advanced self-guiding optical terminals. They used two identical phase stabilization systems, which had their transmitters located in one building while receivers were in another. One system used optical terminals to send the optical signal over a 265-meter free-space path between the buildings. Another system transmitted using a 715 meter-long optical fiber cable, essentially to keep tabs on the performance of the free-space link. The terminals were outfitted with mirrors to prevent interference like phase noise and beam wander.
The scientists hailed from Australia's International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and the University of Western Australia (UWA), as well as the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) and the French metrology lab Systèmes de Référence Temps-Espace (SYRTE) at Paris Observatory.
The study's lead author Benjamin Dix-Matthews, a Ph.D. student at ICRAR and UWA, highlighted the innovation and potential of their technique. "We can correct for atmospheric turbulence in 3-D, that is, left-right, up-down and, critically, along the line of flight," said Dix-Matthews in a press release. "It's as if the moving atmosphere has been removed and doesn't exist. It allows us to send highly stable laser signals through the atmosphere while retaining the quality of the original signal."
Credit: Dix-Matthews, Nature Communications
Block diagram (above) of the experimental link that shows two identical phase stabilization systems on the CNES campus. Both of the systems have their transmitter in the Auger building (local site), and both receivers are located in the Lagrange building (remote site). One transmits the optical signal over a 265 m free-space path in-between the buildings while utilizing tip-tilt active optics terminals. The other transmits using 715 m of optical fiber.
Dr. Sascha Schediwy, ICRAR-UWA senior researcher, envisioned numerous applications for their technology, whose precise performance beats even the best optical atomic clocks. Putting one of these optical terminals on the ground while another one is on a satellite in space would help the exploration of fundamental physics, according to Schediwy. Other applications could extend to testing Einstein's theories with greater precision as well as understanding the time-related changes of fundamental physical constants and making advanced measurements in earth science and geophysics.
Optical communications, a field that utilizes light for sending information, could also benefit. The new tech can improve its data rates by "orders of magnitude," thinks Dr. Schediwy. "The next generation of big data-gathering satellites would be able to get critical information to the ground faster," he added.
Check out the new study in Nature Communications.
It turns out light can not only be twisted, but at different speeds.
- An unsuspected property of light, called "self-torque," had just been discovered.
- The discovery will allow scientists to control the behavior of light in a new way.
- The potential applications are still being worked out, but look very exciting.
It's not often that scientists discover an entirely new property of light. The last time was in 1992, when researchers figured out how to twist light. Now, however, scientists at Spain's Universidad de Salamanca and the University of Colorado in the U.S. have uncovered a new thing light can do — they describe it as "self-torque."
The newly discovered property may one day provide scientists a way of manipulating very tiny objects and improve light-based communication devices, along with myriad other uses similar to those already being explored for twisted light.
First, the history of orbital angular momentum
Orbital angular momentum in a light beam and a particle within it. Image source: E-karimi / Wikimedia Commons
Twisted light beams have to do with a property called "orbital angular momentum" (OAM). It's a subset of angular momentum. Imagine an object attached to a string swinging round and around a pole to which the string is connected — the force with which it goes around the pole is its angular momentum. Technically, it's calculated in the other direction, if you will: It's the measurement of the amount of force it would take to stop the object from circling the pole.
In 1932, scientists realized that a perpendicular cross-section of a light wave revealed oscillating mini-waves within it. While typically these mini-waves oscillate together, that's not always the case. In some light beams, researchers found mini-waves out of phase with each other and rotating around the larger beam's center. A particle hit by such a beam of light will orbit that center like a planet orbiting a star. Hence "orbital angle momentum." At the time, these weird light waves were considered to be organically produced by oddly behaving electrons spinning around nuclei.
In the 1970s, lasers allowed the creation of "vortex beams," with "vortex" here meaning a hole in the middle of a light beam. Now we know that it's not really a hole, but rather an area where out-of-phase mini-waves overlap and cancel each other out as they spin around the center of a beam. Though it wasn't realized at the time, what the scientists were seeing was a manifestation of OAM.
In 1991, physicist Robert Spreeuw in Han Woerdman's lab at Leiden University in the Netherlands began dreaming up ways to deliberately create light beams with OAM. He presented his ideas to his team during a coffee break. "The first reactions were a bit skeptical," Spreeuw says. "But we kept thinking about it and, bit by bit, it started to look more realistic."
In 1992, Woerdman, working with colleague Les Allen, successfully twisted light and demonstrated how a photon within it would share the beam's OAM. In 1993, they published their technique of sending a light beam through a lens shaped like a seashell to produce twisted light.
In such a beam, mini-waves rotate around the center of the beam as a helix. If you shine the beam onto a table, or make a perpendicular cross-section, it looks like a donut: Light around a seemingly empty center.
Since then, twisted light beams have proven extremely useful as optical tweezers with which microscopic particles can be captured and manipulated. In the area of communications, they've enabled higher data rates by allowing the manipulation of light characteristics such as color, intensity, and polarization. They also may make possible finer-grained medical diagnostic tools, the stimulation of atoms and molecules into exotic states, and controllers for micro- and non-scale machinery.
The researchers behind the new discovery had been combining pairs of waves with the same OAM by firing them into a cloud of argon gas, from whence they emerged as a single twisted beam, having overlapped and merged within the cloud. The scientists started wondering what would happen if they tried the same thing with two donut beams that had different OAMs and that were out of sync with each other by a few quadrillionths of a second.
The resulting beam was something surprising and unpredicted. It corkscrewed around its center, more tightly — and so, faster — at one end than the other. A photon at the front of the beam would actually be traveling slower than one at the back. The conclusion was that not only did the light beams have OAM that allowed them to twist, but that the application of one to another in the right way produced a force that could affect the speed of the waves' twisting — they named that force "self-torque," as a previously unsuspected type of push that can alter the speed at which light waves twist.
Cross-sectioned or shined on a flat surface, a beam with self-torque looks like a French croissant instead of a donut. One of the scientists, Kevin Dorney, muses to National Geographic, "You wouldn't expect from adding donuts that you would get a croissant."
Twisted light, already so useful in so many ways, just gained a new level of malleability.
Lasers could cut lifespan of nuclear waste from "a million years to 30 minutes," says Nobel laureate
Physicist plans to karate-chop them with super-fast blasts of light.
- Gérard Mourou has already won a Nobel for his work with fast laser pulses.
- If he gets pulses 10,000 times faster, he says he can modify waste on an atomic level.
- If no solution is found, we're already stuck with some 22,000 cubic meters of long-lasting hazardous waste.
Whatever one thinks of nuclear energy, the process results in tons of radioactive, toxic waste no one quite knows what to do with. As a result, it's tucked away as safely as possible in underground storage areas where it's meant to remain a long, long time: The worst of it, uranium 235 and plutonium 239, have a half life of 24,000 years. That's the reason eyebrows were raised in Europe — where more countries depend on nuclear energy than anywhere else — when physicist Gérard Mourou mentioned in his wide-ranging Nobel acceptance speech that lasers could cut the lifespan of nuclear waste from "a million years to 30 minutes," as he put it in a followup interview with The Conversation.
Who is Gérard Mourou?
Mourou was the co-recipient of his Nobel with Donna Strickland for their development of Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) at the University of Rochester. In his speech, he referred to his "passion for extreme light."
CPA produces high-intensity, super-short optical pulses that pack a tremendous amount of power. Mourou's and Strickland's goal was to develop a means of making highly accurate cuts useful in medical and industrial settings.
It turns out CPA has another benefit, too, that's just as important. Its attosecond pulses are so quick that they shine a light on otherwise non-observable, ultra-fast events such as those inside individual atoms and in chemical reactions. This capability is what Mourou hopes give CPA a chance of neutralizing nuclear waste, and he's actively working out a way to make this happen in conjunction with Toshiki Tajima of UC Irvine. As Mourou explains to The Conversation:
"Take the nucleus of an atom. It is made up of protons and neutrons. If we add or take away a neutron, it changes absolutely everything. It is no longer the same atom, and its properties will completely change. The lifespan of nuclear waste is fundamentally changed, and we could cut this from a million years to 30 minutes!
We are already able to irradiate large quantities of material in one go with a high-power laser, so the technique is perfectly applicable and, in theory, nothing prevents us from scaling it up to an industrial level. This is the project that I am launching in partnership with the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, or CEA, in France. We think that in 10 or 15 years' time we will have something we can demonstrate. This is what really allows me to dream, thinking of all the future applications of our invention."
While 15 years may seem a long time, when you're dealing with the half-life of nuclear waste, it's a blink of an eye.
Nuclear waste in Europe
Although nuclear energy struggles for acceptance as an energy source in the U.S. after a series of disturbing incidents and the emergence of alternative sources such as solar and wind energy, many European nations have embraced it. France is chief among them, relying on nuclear energy for 71% of its energy needs. Ukraine is the next most dependent on it, for 56% of its power, followed closely by Slovakia, then Belgium, Hungary, Sweden, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, according to Bloomberg. None of them have a good plan for nuclear waste, other than storing it somewhere in hopes of an eventual solution or thousands of trouble-fee years during which it stays put and doesn't escape into water supplies or the air.
And there's a lot of this stuff. Greenpeace estimates there are roughly 250,000 tons of it in 14 countries across the world. Of that, about 22,000 cube meters is hazardous. The cost of storing it all, according to GE-Hitachi, is more than $100 billion, (discounting China, Russia, and India).
Transmuting the nuclear waste problem
The process Mourou is investigating is called "transmutation." "Nuclear energy is maybe the best candidate for the future," he told the Nobel audience, "but we are still left with a lot of dangerous junk. The idea is to transmute this nuclear waste into new forms of atoms which don't have the problem of radioactivity. What you have to do is to change the makeup of the nucleus." After his speech he phrase his plans for lasers and waste more plainly: "It's like karate — you deliver a very strong force in a very, very brief moment."
The idea of transmutation's not new. It's been under investigation for 30 years in the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. Some of these efforts are ongoing. Others have been given up. Rodney C. Ewing of Stanford tells Bloomberg, "I can imagine that the physics might work, but the transmutation of high-level nuclear waste requires a number of challenging steps, such as the separation of individual radionuclides, the fabrication of targets on a large scale, and finally, their irradiation and disposal."
Mourou and Tajima hope to be able to shrink the distance a light beam has to travel to transmute atoms by a further 10,000 times. "I think about what it could mean all the time," Mourou says at Ecole Polytechnique, where he teaches. "I don't overlook the difficulties that lie ahead. I dream of the idea, but we will have to wait and see what happens in the years to come."