Scientists receive funding to explore new theories in quantum physics

Image: Douglas Muth (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scientists at the University of Plymouth are embarking on new research that aims to enhance our understanding of how light and matter interact.

Thanks to funding from the Leverhulme Trust, world-leading experts in theoretical physics at the University will explore new regimes in quantum electrodynamics (QED).

QED is the fundamental physical theory of light, matter and their interactions and over many years has become accepted as the most rigorously tested quantum field theory.

However, certain effects – such as those triggered by turning on ultra-strong electric and magnetic fields, as may be produced by intense lasers – demonstrate that currently used theoretical methods can break down.

Through this new two-year project, researchers from the University’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences will aim to identify when, and how, this breakdown occurs. They will in particular look to highlight issues surrounding current methods and how to potentially overcome them.

They will then aim to establish new theoretical tools and identify a “smoking gun” experimental signature missing from current investigations.

The project will be led by Dr Anton Ilderton, Lecturer in Theoretical Physics, and Associate Professor in Theoretical Physics, Dr Tom Heinzl.

Dr Ilderton said:

“The potential of accessing a new physical regime within QED has already spurred interest in approaching the regime experimentally. But the conjectured breakdown of perturbation theory points to flaws in our understanding of theoretical methods at high intensity. Since we currently have no reliable theoretical tools, the results of our research will be significant for theorists working on both particle and laser physics, and experimentalists and simulators working on laser-matter interactions.”

Laser physics is a huge area of research, with scientists in the field having been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics. Their work has in turn inspired the research currently taking place in Plymouth.

In recent years, the University team has contributed to research using cutting edge facilities to smash electrons travelling close to the speed of light with an intense laser beam, and was awarded funding by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to investigate fundamental quantum physics using intense lasers.

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