Matter in Strong Laser Fields – View into the Future

Tunnel ionization of a highly charged ion at relativistic laser intensities: The wave packet of the electron (green) is tunnelling through a potential barrier (blue) in direction of the electrical field and is shifted under the influence of “light pressure” along the propagation direction of the laser.

The investigation of the interaction of matter with laser pulses by now has reached a level at which fundamental aspects such as the quantum nature of both light and matter, relativity and couplings among the involved particles have become key issues and substantial challenges alike. Theory helps to explore the effects of extremely strong fields which are not yet reached in current experiments but may be available in the near future.

When intense laser fields interact with matter, the electrons strongly couple to the outer field and thus efficiently absorb energy from the field. Thereby they can become so fast that relativistic effects play an important role. This requires the search for solutions of the time-dependent Schrödinger and Dirac equations, including electron-electron correlations.

Relativistic effects also occur in fundamental quantum mechanical processes such as tunnel ionization in ultrastrong fields. In particular, the question for the time span an electron needs for tunnelling is controversial and yet unresolved to date. Experimental attempts to measure the tunnelling time directly were not successful so far. But theoretical considerations provided new insights into this problem. Hence, already during the tunnelling process, the action of the magnetic component of the laser field upon the electron – the so-called “light pressure” – becomes obvious. This effect could in principle be experimentally observed on highly charged ions with direct consequences to tunnelling times.

Availability of frequency combs in the X-ray region will allow stringent tests of physical theories and exact measurements of fundamental constants. A recently proposed method to produce such frequency combs is based on a gas, that is pumped by laser pulses into a metastable state, from which an optical frequency comb populates the radiative state. This results in the emission of an X-ray frequency comb.

The action of intense laser fields on atoms, i. e., mainly on the electrons that can easily be accelerated, has been studied intensively during the last decades. In contrast, atomic nuclei which are bound by the strong interaction, can hardly be influenced even by extremely strong optical light fields. The reason for this is that even the lowest excitation energies in atomic nuclei exceed the energy of a single light particle (photon) by a factor of some 10 000 – practically unreachable even by multi-photon processes. In an indirect way, however, it is possible to accelerate charged particles by optical laser fields up to high energies. Nuclei that are subject to alpha decay can be excited by the released alpha particle which is accelerated in the field and recollides with its mother nucleus. The necessary intensities of 1022 – 1023 W/cm2 are already available and such processes are, though rare, in principle detectable.

Another possibibility for the direct excitation of nuclei by gamma radiation may be opened in the not too far future by gamma lasers such as ELI. In contrast to the conventional excitation by heavy-ion collissions, this method would provide access to the hitherto entirely unexplored field of high excitation energies at simultaneously low angular momentum (rotation of the nucleus). First theoretical approaches to this new kind of laser-matter interaction have been developed at MPIK.

Division Keitel

Theory of Collective and Relativistic Quantum Dynamics in Strong Laser Fields (pdf)


The server room in basement of the Bothe laboratory.

For systems in theoretical quantum dynamics, analytical calculations, i. e., using mathematical formulas, can be accomplished only to a limited extent; in many cases numerical algorithms must be applied. Besides partly modified standard codes primarily home-made programmes are used. The time-consuming calculations on relativistic processes and many-particle systems, which often last for days, afford the operation of parallel computer architectures such as high-performance graphic boards or Linux clusters. The central Linux cluster of the institute consists of 160 servers with more than 2500 processor cores and 20 Terabyte RAM. Data are stored on a hard disk system with high capacity.

Division Keitel

Strong-Field Quantum Electrodynamics – Modifying the Vacuum

Scheme of the QED contributions to the magnetic moment of a bound electron (blue, atomic nucleus green), interacting via virtual photons (wave lines) with an external magnetic field and with itself (upper right).

In the language of quantum electrodynamics (QED), electromagnetism is described as the exchange of so-called virtual photons between charged particles. Another consequence of this theory is the fact that there is no empty space, i. e. the vacuum is filled with virtual particles. Though their existence is only allowed for a very short time – given by quantum uncertainty – the presence of an average number of virtual particles can be detected by high-precision experiments. At the same time, QED is the to date best tested theory in physics at all.

Of particular interest is the QED in extremely strong fields. Besides high-precision calculations of the inner structure of matter (e. g. highly charged ions) theory deals with the fundamental question of radiation reaction: when a charged particle is accelerated in an electromagnetic field, it emits electromagnetic radiation which in turn acts back on the particle’s motion. Intense laser fields can help to test experimentally the underlying equations. Quantum aspects of radiation reaction in electron dynamics should show up in studies using already available laser systems. This is also of importance for many-particle ensembles like a laser-generated relativistic plasma.

Very strong electric fields will influence the charged virtual particles in the quantum vacuum such that the vacuum becomes polarized changing its optical properties: The conditions were calculated under which light is scatterd by a matterless double slit (nearby foci of two ultra-intense laser beams). Very strong fields also prevail in the vicinity of the nuclei of heavy elements.

The interplay of theory and experiment significantly contributes to the determination of fundamental constants such as the g-factor (ratio of angular momentum and magnetic momentum) of the electron. On the one hand, comparison with precision experiments permits validation of QED predictions, while on the other hand theory helps to determine natural constants like the electron mass: its current value is by a factor of 13 more accurate.

Division Keitel     Division Blaum

Laser-Modified Quantum Electrodynamics, Nuclear and High-Energy Processes (pdf)
Penning Traps: Precision Measurements on Single Ions (pdf)

Laser Astrophysics – Cosmic Accelerators in the Laboratory Scale

Schematic drawing of the experimental setup for the optical production of a beam consisting of electrons, positrons and gamma rays.

Already to date, highly intense laser fields enable the acceleration of particles to energies up to the oder of Gigaelectron Volts (GeV). This opens the possibility to reproduce physical conditions in the laboratory, as they prevail in extreme astrophysical processes. In close collaboration with external theoretical and experimental groups, MPIK researchers developed models for the production of ultrarelativistic lepton beams consisting of electrons and positrons. Thereby, the conversion of bremsstrahlung to electron-positron pairs could be identified as a substantial mechanism. The investigation of such highly energetic processes on laboratory scale is of great importance for astrophysics: Cosmic gamma-ray bursts for example, to our present knowledge emerge from the extremely collimated ultrarelativistic leptonic jets which are emitted along the rotation axis of certain types of collapsing stars.

Division Keitel

Laser-Modified Quantum Electrodynamics, Nuclear and High-Energy Processes (pdf)



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