A new property of light has been discovered by researchers based in Spain and the United States — and it isn’t that it’s “bright.”

First they fired two red optical laser pulses at a cloud of argon gas. The beams overlapped, joined and left the argon cloud as a kind of vortex beam. Then they did the same thing again, but each laser was slightly out of sync and each had a different orbital angular momentum

The result was a unified beam that looked like a corkscrew. When this twisting beam hit a flat surface, it took the shape of a crescent moon. A single photon at the front of the beam orbited around its center more slowly than a photon at the back of the beam. 

This new property of light, named “self-torque,” had never been predicted before. The name is apt because it’s akin to “a wrench speeding up as it tightens a bolt,” a phenomenon found rarely in nature outside of black holes. 

Noting the significance of the discovery, study coauthor Kevin Dorney commented, “We’re always discovering new things in science, but it’s not that often you discover a new fundamental property.”

Orbital angular momentum of light was first produced a quarter century ago, and now it’s used in high-powered microscopes, in devices that move tiny pieces of industrial machinery around, and in optical communications networks that send high data rate signals.

Self-torque could one day be used to create devices that manipulate microscopic materials, but it’s exact potential isn’t yet known. 

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