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Storage of light via electromagnetically-induced transparency

This tutorial gives a technical description of the light storage phenomenon. The physical description – i.e. not what happens, but why it happens, is much more involved and is hard to describe in the semi-popular language.

Consider a glass cell filled with a gas of so-called Lambda-type atoms – a three-level system with two ground and one excited states:

We assume the gas to be optically dense on the transition between levels 1 and 3, that is, a laser beam of the transition wavelength will be absorbed by the gas. If we now, at the same time, apply an additional, strong laser field to the transition 2 - 3 to exhibit a narrow transparency window in the absorption spectrum. Moreover, if the blue laser is pulsed, the pulse will propagate through the cell at a speed much less than the vacuum speed of light – possibly slower than a bicycle! This phenomenon is called electromagnetically-induced transparency (EIT).

Let us now turn the control (red) laser off slowly while the signal (blue) pulse is entirely within the sample making its way through. As we reduce the control field, the signal pulse will propagate slower and slower and will eventually stop. The quantum information contained in the pulse will be transferred to the atoms – more precisely, to the coherent superposition of the two ground levels 1 and 2. Because both are low energy states, their superposition is long-lived, that is – subject to little decay. It can remain unchanged for hundreds of microseconds – an epoch on the atomic time scale!

Theoreticians say, this storage procedure is completely reversible. When we wish to read our memory, we slowly turn the control field back on. The signal pulse will be reemitted with its original shape, phase and in its original quantum state – thus completing the storage/release procedure.

Here is a little movie showing the process of light storage. Notice how the EIT absorption and dispersion, as well as the group velocity of the light pulse change as a function of the control field.

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