My question is a little silly I know, but I'm curious to know if a particle of light can be theoretically trapped between two reflective screens.

For example once the particle of light has left it's source, and is reflected against a mirror (assuming there is no loss of energy) and you immediately replace the source of light with another mirror. Would the light beam bounce in between the sheets endlessly?

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    $\begingroup$ This is just word games: If you find two perfectly reflective surfaces, then sure - if the light could go elsewhere, they wouldn't perfectly reflective, would they? Unfortunately, there are no perfectly reflective things in nature. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Jul 19 '14 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Related: physics.stackexchange.com/q/55254/2451 and links therein. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Jul 19 '14 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ It's impossible to build a perfect mirror, even in theory. However, theoretically, you could trap light on a circular geodesic. Practically that's near-impossible and probably not the best idea, though, since it would involve some serious manipulation of spacetime. :-) $\endgroup$ – Wouter Jul 19 '14 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the information. And the related link. I'm still getting some interesting variations in answers and it's making me do more research. Which is a good thing. :) $\endgroup$ – Noel Braganza Jul 20 '14 at 0:48

From your question, I guess the double mirror configuration is just an example you thought of. I suppose your question actually is about if a photon can be trapped. Then basically yes. A device able to confine electromagnetic wave or light or photon is called cavity. You should understand a photon does not necessarily means a propagating plane wave. It can be in fact an excitation of cavity modes. Of course in practice there doesn't exist perfect cavity. The figure of merit used to measure how long a cavity can keep a photon is quality factor Q. The capability of holding a photon for long time is important for many real life applications, so much effort has been made in pursuit of higher and higher Q value.


The best complex dielectric mirrors, see


may reflect up to 99.999 percent of the incident energy. The loss is about 1/100,000, so after 100,000 reflections, the total intensity decreases $e=2.718$ times or so. If the distance between the mirrors is 3 meters, the light travels 3 meters times 100,000 = 300,000 meters before it gets diluted $e$ times, and it takes 1/1,000 of a second. So within one millisecond, most of the light is absorbed, anyway.

The time may be extended by increasing the distance between the (great) mirrors.

In principle, if the mirrors got better, a photon could be trapped. Its phase would be changing by the gravitational field – the photon would literally start to accelerate downwards. With the realistic mirrors described above, this acceleration downwards is pretty much unobservable.

More generally, the absorption by the inevitably imperfect mirrors is still the fastest process that makes the vision about the trapped photon impossible. Within the time scale before the light gets absorbed, the photon may be considered almost perfectly trapped because all other effects that violate it are negligible in comparison.

  • $\begingroup$ What about optical fiber? How is the light transmited for so long distances? Is better than two mirrors? $\endgroup$ – Enrique Mar 20 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ Dear @Enrique, a great question. Yes, the light obviously survives for much more time within optical fibers than for the millisecond quoted above. There is no real loss in this so-called total internal reflection, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_internal_reflection - But the price you pay is that the reflection doesn't work for "light perpendicular to the surface"., Instead, the angle must be such that the light is basically moving forward. So it's in no way a "periodic system". You could keep the light in a "circle of an optical fiber" for quite some time, however. $\endgroup$ – Luboš Motl Mar 23 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ See e.g. these debates about the circular optical fiber: quora.com/… $\endgroup$ – Luboš Motl Mar 23 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ So the problem is basically the conservation of energy. To trap the light we need to slow it down or change it's direction. Both things reduces the energy of the light, and because light is so fast the loss in energy is too. $\endgroup$ – Enrique Mar 24 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ Well, energy is always conserved. But on the boundary of optical fibers, almost no energy is lost. It's hard to connect the fibers to circles in time. $\endgroup$ – Luboš Motl Mar 24 at 5:40

Yes & No, You can however create an perfect mirror, which does not absorb any of the photons energy however its simply not possible or even feasible at this time to create such a device without energy being conserved in the photon, but it will however it will loose its energy due to Gravitational red shift after a long-time or Red shift due to moving in expanding space. Therefore it is possible to trap a photon however as time-passes the energy of the photon will be lost to space.

To conclude, a photon can be "trapped" however its initial energy cannot be trapped as it will be lost, but you could create a pair of photon then smash them together to create electron-positron pair which could be saved without loss of energy. Read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pair_production

Then to change them back into photons simply take the electron-positron and smash them to create 2 photons thus you can trap photons in a different state.


As everybody says, we don't have perfectly reflective mirrors so light that is reflected many times will eventually be absorbed.

I read an article dated some time before 1990 that described the shape for a curved mirror that would trap light. Light that enters the mirror gets bounced at increasing angles until it is reflected back and forth at a ninety degree angle from the entrance. To get that effect the hole in the mirror that light enters can't be much over 40% the area of the cross-section of the mirror. (The mirror is a 3D structure and the inside is a mirror surface; light that enters the hole must be reflected at a big enough angle to miss the hole but instead hit another mirror on the inside. Think of an egg shape.)

So you start with light entering across an area, and you end with light reflecting from a mirror basicly along a line. The article did not include an estimate of how big a mirror like that would have to be,before it could collect enough sunlight to melt itself along the line that the reflections converged to.

The article was either in the American Mathematical Society bulletin or in American Mathematical Monthly. I don't remember which and a moderately thorough search just now didn't find it.


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