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  • Flipping Photonic Shock Waves
Nov 2009
COLLEGE PARK, Md., Nov. 3, 2009 – Light moving in a vacuum sets the ultimate speed limit, but light travels more slowly through materials such as glass and air. Speedy electrons or other charged particles can briefly outrun light in matter, producing a shock wave in the form of a cone of light known as Cerenkov radiation. (The eerie blue glow in the cooling water of nuclear reactors is the result of particles moving faster than the speed of light in water.)

Now, for the first time, physicists have experimental verification of reversed Cerenkov radiation in a specially tailored structure known as a left-handed metamaterial.

Although the effect was first predicted more than 40 years ago, this is the first unambiguous experimental demonstration of it.

In normal substances, the radiation is emitted in a forward cone. Left-handed metamaterials, however, have unusual effects on light that should reverse the cone’s direction.

(Top left) Schematic of Cerenkov radiation in a conventional natural medium with positive refractive index, such as water, in which the radiation falls in a cone in the forward direction. (Bottom left) Schematic of backward Cerenkov radiation in a left-handed medium, showing the reversed cone. (Right) Schematic of the two-dimensional experimental configuration and the photographic image of the negative-index metamaterials used to demonstrate backward Cerenkov radiation. The metamaterials consist of in-plane split-ring resonators and metal wires. Courtesy of Alan Stonebraker.

When light enters a normal material such as glass, it changes direction, a phenomenon that allows us to make lenses that correct poor vision. When light enters a left-handed metamaterial, the change in direction is opposite to what would occur in normal materials. (The materials are “left-handed” because they affect light oppositely from “right-handed” normal materials.) This means that the cone of Cerenkov radiation from a faster-than-light particle should propagate backward in a left-handed metamaterial. But experimental difficulties have prevented confirmation of the effect, despite its prediction in 1968.

Now a team of physicists at Zhejiang University in China and at MIT has developed a metamaterial structure that successfully demonstrates reverse Cerenkov radiation.

Instead of injecting faster-than-light particles into their metamaterial, the researchers created an optical analog of particles moving at twice the speed of light. This allowed them to produce a much stronger burst of reverse Cerenkov light than they could have gotten with a real particle beam. Besides verifying a decades-old theoretical prediction, the experiment suggests a new possible application of left-handed metamaterials as detectors of high-speed particles in accelerators and other experimental methods.

The research is reported in Physical Review Letters and highlighted in the Nov. 2 online issue of Physics.

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cerenkov radiation
The radiation produced when a charged particle traverses a medium that has a refractive index considerably greater than unity. The moving particle has a velocity that exceeds the velocity of light in the medium, thus producing the radiation.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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