Stopping light could lead to quantum advance in computing

Two teams of scientists have accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of trapping and stopping light--an achievement that could lead to major advances in quantum computing.

The experiments were conducted by two teams working independently of each other in Cambridge, Mass. One team was led by Lene Hau of Harvard University and the Rowland Institute of Science, the other by Ronald Walsworth and Mikhail Lukin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Just a few years ago, Hau brought the speed of light down to a manageable 30 meters per second, much slower than its normal 300 million meters per second, according to Seth Lloyd, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose focus is on building quantum computers.

More recently, the two teams brought light to a halt by shining a pulse of light into a chamber of gas in which the beam got slower and slower and dimmer and dimmer before coming to a stop with the help of a technique dubbed electromagnetically induced transparency.

Hua's group used chilled sodium gas to act as a parachute, while Walsworth's team used gaseous rubidium, an alkaline metal element.

The light, composed of particles called photons, essentially lost its zing as the information from the photons was transferred into the spin inherent in the gas atoms. Once paused, it could then be revived to its usual speed of 186,000 miles per second.

The achievement has sparked renewed enthusiasm among advocates of quantum computing. "It is easy to send a photon from one place to another, but catching it at the other end is what is really hard," Lloyd said. "This is a beautiful way of catching bits stored on light and storing them in a medium."

"I think it puts us considerably forward in our schedule in building more powerful quantum computers and the quantum Internet."

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