Researchers at Princeton University have developed subatomic crystalline light.
Princeton University Researchers at Princeton University have developed subatomic crystalline light.

In simple terms, the basic stuff of the universe is often categorized as either physical matter or intangible waves of energy. Light, typically classified among the latter, can sometimes behave as a particle rather than as a wave. As a result, scientists are beginning to consider light as a material.

At Princeton University, a team of researchers has found a way to crystallize light—or transform light waves into crystalline solids—in an effort to study atomic behavior more effectively. To do this, they devised a structure out of superconducting materials that contains 100 billion atoms acting in unison. Upon placing the artificial atom in the vicinity of a superconducting wire containing photons, the team observed that some of the photons adopted the material properties of the atom—in effect, creating an entirely new behavior for light.

"We have used this blending together of the photons and the atom to artificially devise strong interactions among the photons," said Darius Sadri, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and co-author of a related paper published online on Sept. 8 in the journal Physical Review X, in a press release. "These interactions then lead to completely new collective behavior for light—akin to the phases of matter, like liquids and crystals, studied in condensed matter physics.”

The team intends to build on the discovery by creating more complex systems, expanding from a single atom to a larger quantity of material. They anticipate that such a material will reveal exotic phases of light, including superfluids and insulators. Although commercial product applications have yet to be determined, the research has the potential to strongly influence the fields of computing and electronics—as well as lighting itself. One possible outcome is superconductors that function at room temperature, which could lead to the creation of hyperfast computers and super-sensitive sensors. Such technologies would provide powerful processing capabilities with minimal energy consumption.

Those hoping the innovation will allow for devices such as a lightsaber to materialize will have to wait, Andrew Houck, an associate electrical engineering professor at Princeton and one of the paper's co-authors, told The Huffington Post"unless you are speaking of a metaphorical tool that will cut through our veil of ignorance like a lightsaber through a tauntaun."

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.