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Quantum phase transitions of light

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Andrew D. Greentree, Charles Tahan, Jared H. Cole and Lloyd C. L. Hollenberg, Nature Physics 2, 856 – 861 (2006)

The ability to conduct experiments at length scales and temperatures at which interesting and potentially useful quantum-mechanical phenomena emerge in condensed-matter or atomic systems is now commonplace. In optics, though, the weakness with which photons interact with each other makes exploring such behaviour more difficult. Here we describe an optical system that exhibits strongly correlated dynamics on a mesoscopic scale. By adding photons to a two-dimensional array of coupled optical cavities each containing a single two-level atom in the photon-blockade regime, we form dressed states, or polaritons, that are both long-lived and strongly interacting. Our results predict that at zero temperature the system will undergo a characteristic Mott insulator (excitations localized on each site) to superfluid (excitations delocalized across the lattice) quantum phase transition. Moreover, the ability to couple light to and from individual cavities of this system could be useful in the realization of tuneable quantum simulators and other quantum-mechanical devices.

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