Probe for nanofibers has atom-scale sensitivity

Optical fibers are the backbone of modern communications, shuttling information from A to B through thin glass filaments as pulses of light. They are used extensively in telecommunications, allowing information to travel at near the speed of light virtually without loss.

Physics - Synopsis: Chemical Echo

Echoes are not limited to sound reflecting off cave walls. A similar phenomenon—a delayed response following an immediate response to some stimulus—can occur after coupled oscillators are stimulated by a sequence of two input pulses. Researchers have now observed such an echo phenomenon in a system of coupled chemical oscillators.  

Edward Ott of the University of Maryland in College Park, Kenneth Showalter of West Virginia University in Morgantown, and their colleagues studied a standard oscillating chemical system known as the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. This light sensitive reaction involves transitions between an opaque state and one that transmits light. The team fixed more than 1000 tiny beads containing the relevant chemicals in a setup that allowed the beads—each with its own oscillation frequency—to be individually illuminated and the light transmitted through each bead to be separately detected.

A Warm Welcome for Weyl Physics

Warm welcome for weyl physics

This is part one of a two-part series on Weyl semimetals and Weyl fermions, newly discovered materials and particles that have drawn great interest from researchers at JQI and the Condensed Matter Theory Center at the University of Maryland. The first part focuses on the history and basic physics of these materials. Part two will focus on theoretical work at Maryland and will appear next week.

For decades, particle accelerators have grabbed headlines while smashing matter together at faster and faster speeds. But in recent years, alongside the progress in high-energy experiments, another realm of physics has been taking its own exciting strides forward.

That realm, which researchers call condensed matter physics, studies chunks of matter moving decidedly slower than the protons in the LHC. In fact, the materials under study—typically solids or liquids—are usually sitting still. That doesn't make them boring, though. Their calm appearance can often hide exotic physics that arises from their microscopic activity.

"In condensed matter physics, the energy scales are much lower," says Pallab Goswami, a postdoctoral researcher at JQI and the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) at the University of Maryland. "We want to go to lower energies and find new phenomena, which is exactly the opposite of what is done in particle physics."

Historically, that's been a fruitful approach. The field has explained the physics of semiconductors—like the silicon that makes computer chips—and many superconductors, which generate the large magnetic fields required for clinical MRI machines.

Over the past decade, that success has continued. In 2004, researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK discovered a way to make single-atom-thick sheets of carbon by sticking Scotch tape onto graphite and peeling it off. It was a shockingly low-tech way to make graphene, a material with stellar electrical properties and incredible strength, and it led quickly to a Nobel Prize in physics in 2010.

A few years later, researchers discovered topological insulators, materials that trap their internal electrons but let charges on the surface flow freely. It's a behavior that requires sophisticated math to explain—math that earned three researchers a share of the 2016 Nobel Prize in physics for theoretical discoveries that ultimately explain the physics of these and other materials.

In 2012, experimentalists studying the junction between a superconductor and a spotted evidence for Majorana fermions, particles that behave like uncharged electrons. Originally studied in the context of high-energy physics, these exotic particles never showed up in accelerators, but scientists at JQI predicted that they might make an appearance at much lower energies.

Last year, separate research groups at Princeton University, MIT and the Chinese Academy of Sciences discovered yet another exotic material—a Weyl semimetal—and with it yet another particle: the Weyl fermion. It brought an end to a decades-long search that began in the 1930s and earned acclaim as a top-10 discovery of the year, according to Physics World.

Like graphene, Weyl semimetals have appealing electrical properties and may one day make their way into electronic devices. But, perhaps more intriguingly for theorists, they also share some of the rich physics of topological insulators and have provoked a flurry new research. Scientists working with JQI Fellow Sankar Das Sarma, the Director of CMTC, have published 18 papers on the subject since 2014.

Das Sarma says that the progress in understanding solid state materials over the past decade has been astonishing, especially the discovery of phenomena researchers once thought were confined to high-energy physics. "It shows how clever nature is, as concepts and laws developed in one area of physics show up in a completely disparate area in unanticipated ways," he says.

An article next week will explore some of the work on Weyl materials at JQI and CMTC. This week's story will focus on the fundamental physics at play in these unusual materials.  

Take a closer look with part two of this series.

Physics Nobel honors underpinnings of exotic matter

 nobelprize2016 phyImage credit: Nobelprize.org

A trio of researchers who laid the foundation for understanding numerous exotic phases of matter have split the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize "for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter" to three laureates: David Thouless of the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane of Princeton University and Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University.

The research behind the prize "illustrates, in a very nice way, the interplay between physics and mathematics," said Thors Hans Hansson, a physicist who introduced the mathematics behind the prize at the announcement ceremony using a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel.

Topology is the branch of mathematics that offers a coarse distinction between those three baked goods, often capturing differences by counting the number of holes that different objects have. In topology, a bagel and a pretzel are fundamentally different because there is no way to add more holes to a bagel without tearing the dough and reshaping it.

The application of topology to physics was a revelation in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many puzzling behaviors defied explanation until topology was considered. For example, experiments on thin materials subjected to low temperatures and enormous magnetic fields exhibited an odd behavior. Instead of their electrical current changing continuously as a magnetic field varied, it made discrete jumps. Now known as the quantum Hall effect, this behavior arose from the topological properties of electrons in the material. When confined to two dimensions and subjected to extreme conditions, the quantum behavior of electrons can get knotted up in topologically distinct ways. This realization explained where the jumps in current occurred and why they were stable even when samples were less than pristine.

Many researchers at JQI, CMTC and CNAM take advantage of the interplay between topology and physics, using it to guide light in novel ways or study how to build a quantum computer. They've even extended some of the early work by Thouless to create a quantum pump.

Stay tuned for updates as we continue to follow this year's Nobel Prize in Physics.  Please visit JQI to follow the updates.

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UMD Physicists Discover “Smoke Rings” Made of Laser Light

3D ring structures made by high-intensity lasers could aid the design of powerful microscopes and more efficient telecommunication lines

Most basic physics textbooks describe laser light in fairly simple terms: a beam travels directly from one point to another and, unless it strikes a mirror or other reflective surface, will continue traveling along an arrow-straight path, gradually expanding in size due to the wave nature of light. But these basic rules go out the window with high-intensity laser light. ­­­

Powerful laser beams, given the right conditions, will act as their own lenses and "self-focus" into a tighter, even more intense beam. University of Maryland physicists have discovered that these self-focused laser pulses also generate violent swirls of optical energy that strongly resemble smoke rings. In these donut-shaped light structures, known as "spatiotemporal optical vortices," the light energy flows through the inside of the ring and then loops back around the outside.

The vortices travel along with the laser pulse at the speed of light and control the energy flow around it. The newly discovered optical structures are described in the September 9, 2016 issue of the journal Physical Review X.

The researchers named the laser smoke rings "spatiotemporal optical vortices," or STOVs. The light structures are ubiquitous and easily created with any powerful laser, given the right conditions. The team strongly suspects that STOVs could explain decades' worth of anomalous results and unexplained effects in the field of high-intensity laser research.

"Lasers have been researched for decades, but it turns out that STOVs were under our noses the whole time," said Howard Milchberg, professor of physics and electrical and computer engineering at UMD and senior author of the research paper, who also has an appointment at the UMD Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics (IREAP). "This is a robust, spontaneous feature that's always there. This phenomenon underlies so much that's been done in our field for the past 30-some years."

Milchberg inline image Orbital angular momentum (OAM) vortices (pink ringlike objects) are three-dimensional laser light structures that rotate around a central beam, much like water circles around a drain. Physicists and engineers have studied this type of laser vortex since the 1990s as a tool to help improve microscopy and telecommunications. Image credit: Howard Milchberg

More conventional spatial optical vortices are well-known from prior research—chief among them "orbital angular momentum" (OAM) vortices, where light energy circulates around the beam propagation direction much like water rotates around a drain as it empties from a washbasin. Because these vortices can influence the shape of the central beam, they have proven useful for advanced applications such as high-resolution microscopy.

"Conventional optical vortices have been studied since the late 1990s as a way to improve telecommunications, microscopy and other applications. These vortices allow you to control what gets illuminated and what doesn't, by creating small structures in the light itself," said the paper's lead author Nihal Jhajj, a physics graduate student who conducted the research at IREAP.

"The smoke ring vortices we discovered may have even broader applications than previously known optical vortices, because they are time dynamic, meaning that they move along with the beam instead of remaining stationary," Jhajj added. "This means that the rings may be useful for manipulating particles moving near the speed of light."

Jhajj and Milchberg acknowledge that much more work needs to be done to understand STOVs, including their physical and theoretical implications. But they are particularly excited for new opportunities that will arise in basic laser research following their discovery of STOVs.

"All the evidence we've seen suggests that STOVs are universal," Jhajj said. "Now that we know what to look for, we think that looking at a high-intensity laser pulse propagating through a medium and not seeing STOVs would be a lot like looking at a river and not seeing eddies and currents."

Eventually, STOVs might have useful real-world applications, like their more conventional counterparts. For example, OAM vortices have been used in the design of more powerful stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopes. STED microscopes are capable of much higher resolution than traditional confocal microscopes, in part due to the precise illumination offered by optical vortices.

With the potential to travel with the central beam at the speed of light, STOVs could have as-yet unforeseen advantages in technological applications, including the potential to expand the effective bandwidth of fiber-optic communication lines.

"A STOV is not just a spectator to the laser beam, like an angel's halo," explained Milchberg, noting the ability of STOVs to control the central beam's shape and energy flow. "It is more like an electrified angel's halo, with energy shooting back and forth between the halo and the angel's head. We're all very excited to see where this discovery will take us in the future."

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In addition to Jhajj and Milchberg, coauthors on the study include IREAP Associate Research Scientist Jared Wahlstrand and physics/IREAP graduate students Sina Zahedpour , Ilia Larkin and Eric Rosenthal.

The research paper, "Spatio-temporal optical vortices," Nihal Jhajj, Ilia Larkin, Eric Rosenthal, Sina Zahedpour, Jared Wahlstrand, and Howard Milchberg, appears in the September 9, 2016 issue of the journal Physical Review X.

This work was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency(Award No. W911NF1410372), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (Award No. FA95501310044), the National Science Foundation (Award No. PHY1301948), and the Army Research Office (Award No. W911NF1410372). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Writer: Matthew Wright

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