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News from physics – light penetrates even opaque material

| von Julia

What if a beam of light could pass through a highly scattering medium and still produce a clear image on the screen? And almost as if the medium didn’t exist at all. What appears at first glance to be pure magic is in fact groundbreaking knowledge from the world of physics. Indeed, Dutch and Austrian researchers have recently succeeded in using special light waves to transport images through opaque or opaque materials.

The fantastic power of light

It’s like a small miracle. Scientists have conducted extensive studies to create light waves that can penetrate even opaque materials.In this way, it is possible to pass images through a non-transparent medium as if they were air. The researchers refer to this as “scattering invariant light modes.” As a consequence, it may be possible to carry out completely new applications – as a basis for further groundbreaking experiments. This type of innovation can be illustrated in particular by simple examples:

Light and sugar – an “enlightening” discovery

A piece of sugar cube is a material through which one cannot easily see. So it’s opaque. This is due to the structure, which is completely disordered in itself. This leads to a strong refraction and scattering of light. As a result, the incident light beam is altered in such a way that most of it no longer arrives “in one piece” on the other side of the sugar cube.

Certainly, some light segments, such as the ballistic photons, can pass undisturbed from one side to the other. However, their share is so small that they are hardly relevant. Physicists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in collaboration with scientists at the Vienna University of Technology, have discovered a way to conceptualize the structure of light rays so that they can pass easily and undisturbed through even highly scattering media – such as a piece of sugar cube or a glass of milk.

The groundwork is crucial

The research team has recognized the importance of finding out in advance how a particular medium scatters the different waveforms of incident light. Here, each light wave pattern is changed and redirected in a specific way as soon as it is transferred through an unstructured or opaque material. Initially, neither sugar nor milk were used in the studies. Instead, the researchers resorted to an ultra-thin layer of white zinc oxide powder. This opaque medium was transilluminated, using light beams with different wave structures.

How a light beam or light wave penetrates a medium depends, among other things, on the following factors:

  • The wavelengthis of primary relevance here.
  • The dimensions of the light waves also play a role.
  • The shape as well as the structuring of the light wave also takes on a high significance in this respect.

On the basis of complex preliminary calculations, the scientists were able to determine which wave structures are modified by the zinc oxide layer as if there were no scattering of light waves at all. It was found that there is a specific class of light waves that produce exactly the same light wave structure on the screen. Physicists speak of scattering invariant light modes. It is irrelevant whether the light wave is transferred through a complex zinc oxide layer or merely through air.

Why is this insight so valuable?

The discovery of physicists is essential in various fields. From now on, it should be possible to use this knowledge to transmit optical information through opaque materials. In addition, even new imaging techniques could be developed sooner or later. An aspect that would also be of importance with regard to the performance of biological experiments. For example, when it comes to implementing light at specific points to look into the deepest interior of cells or cell structures. In addition, the groundbreaking method can enable new procedures in many areas of basic research or medicine or in materials research.

The modification of light

According to the researchers, scattering-invariant light modes occur extremely rarely. Nevertheless, with the help of targeted methods and measurements using complex mathematical models, it may very well be possible to create the appropriate light modes for almost any medium. Following this,it is conceivable to generate a light wave structure that can project even highly complicated optical information through an opaque material. The zinc oxide used in the tests does not change the shape of the light waves; the medium merely contributes to an attenuation of the wave structure. It remains exciting what will be possible in the future thanks to this discovery.

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