Quartz glass does not conduct electric current; it is a typical example of an insulator. With ultra-short laser pulses, however, the electronic properties of glass can be fundamentally changed within femtoseconds.
If the laser pulse is strong enough, the electrons in the material can move freely. For a brief moment, the quartz glass behaves like metal. It becomes opaque and conducts electricity.
This change of material properties happens so quickly that it can be used for ultra-fast light based electronics.

Scientists at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) have now managed to explain this effect using large-scale computer simulations.
In recent years, ultra-short laser pulses of only a few femtoseconds have been used to investigate quantum effects in atoms or molecules.
Now they can also be used to change material properties. In an experiment at the Max-Planck Institute in Garching, Germany, electric current has been measured in quartz glass, while it was illuminated by a laser pulse.
After the pulse, the material almost immediately returns to its previous state.
TU Wien researchers explained this peculiar effect, in collaboration with researchers from the Tsukuba University in Japan.
Quantum mechanically, an electron can occupy different states in a solid material. It can be tightly bound to one particular atom or it can occupy a state of higher energy in which it can move between atoms.
"The laser pulse is an extremely strong electric field, which has the power to dramatically change the electronic states in the quartz," said Georg Wachter.
"The pulse can not only transfer energy to the electrons, it completely distorts the whole structure of possible electron states in the material," added Wachter.
That way, an electron which used to be bound to an oxygen atom in the quartz glass can suddenly change over to another atom and behave almost like a free electron in a metal.
Once the laser pulse has separated electrons from the atoms, the electric field of the pulse can drive the electrons in one direction, so that electric current starts to flow.
Extremely strong laser pulses can cause a current that persists for a while, even after the pulse has faded out.

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