Generating Light Out of the Vacuum

Light from the Quantum Field

A team of physicists from the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg claim they were able to produce sparks of light from the vacuum of empty space with the use of a mirror. According to quantum theory, a vacuum is actually filled with writhing particles that flit in and out of existence. Due to the fleeting existence of these particles, if two mirrors are placed very close together, the amount of particles that can exist between them is limited; this leaves more light particles (photons) outside the mirrors than between them. The photons outside the mirrors then create a measurable force that pushes the mirrors together. For years scientists have theorized that a similar effect could be created with a single mirror that is moving very quickly. Per Delsing and his colleagues from Chalmers now believe they have successfully proven the theory. The team used a quantum electronic appliance called the superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) as the mirror. After creating a superconducting circuit, they passed a magnetic field through the SQUID to move the mirror. Switching the direction of the magnetic field several billion times per second, the team was able to make the mirror “wiggle” at 5% the speed of light, which was fast enough to shake microwave photons loose from the vacuum and create visual sparks of light. Although the results do not have any immediate practical use, scientists are calling the experiment a “nice demonstration of quantum mechanics,” that has “stirred considerable passion in the breasts of physicists.”

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