New Metamaterial Causes Light to Travel Infinitely Fast

First Posted: Oct 19, 2015 02:33 PM EDT

Scientists have created the first material where light can travel infinitely fast. The new on-chip metamaterial with a refractive index of zero could be huge for photonic devices, which use light to transport large amounts of information quickly.

"Light doesn't typically like to be squeezed or manipulated but this metamaterial permits you to manipulate light from one chip to another, to squeeze, bend, twist and reduce diameter of a beam from the macroscale to the nanoscale," said Eric Mazur, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It's a remarkable way to manipulate light."

You'd think that this infinitely high velocity would break the rule of relativity. However, it doesn't. Nothing in the universe travels faster than light carrying information, but light has another speed that's measured by how fast the crests of a wavelength move, known as phase velocity. This speed of light increases or decreases depending on the material it's moving through. For example, light's phase velocity is reduced when it travels through water.

In a zero-index material, though, there's no phase advance. This means that light no longer behaves as a moving wave traveling through space in a series of crests and troughs. Instead, the zero-index material creates a constant phase stretching out in infinitely long wavelengths. The crests and troughs oscillate only as a variable of time, and not space.

"Integrated photonic circuits are hampered by weak and inefficient optical energy confinement in standard silicon waveguides," said Yang Li, one of the researchers. "This zero-index metamaterial offers a solution for the confinement of electromagnetic energy in different waveguide configurations because its high internal phase velocity produces full transmission, regardless of how the material is configured."

The new metamaterial could be used in quantum mechanics, and could be especially useful for future electronics.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Photonics.

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