Photons are faster than electrons. This has lead scientists to see if they can harness light (photons) to operate an integrated circuit. While this should result in faster circuits, there’s a hitch: wavelengths of light are much larger than the dimensions of today’s computer chips. The problem is that you simply can’t compress the wavelengths to the point where they work in these smaller chip-scale dimensions.
Scientists have been leveraging a new tool lately to shrink the wavelengths of light to fit into smaller dimensions: plasmonics. Plasmonics exploits the waves of electrons—known as plasmons—that are formed when photons strike a metallic structure. Graphene has played a large role in this emerging field because it has the properties of a metal—it’s a pure conductor of electrons.
The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, which has been a leader in this field for years, is now reporting they have taken the use of graphene for shrinking the wavelengths of light to a new level. In research described in the journal Science, ICFO researchers have managed to confine light down to a space one atom thick in dimension. This is certainly the smallest confinement ever achieved and may represent the ultimate level for confining light.
The way the researchers achieved this ultimate confinement was to use graphene along with one of its two-dimensional (2D) cousins: hexagonal boron nitride, which is an insulator.
By using these 2D cousins together, the researchers created what’s known as van der Waals heterostructures in which monolayers of different 2D materials are by stacked on top of each other and held together by van der Waal forces to create materials with tailored electronic properties—like different band gaps for stopping and starting the flow of electrons. In this case, the layers included hexagonal boron nitride layered on top of the graphene and then involved adding an array of metallic rods on top of that. This structure had the graphene sandwiched between an insulator and a conductor. The graphene in this role served to guide the plasmons that formed when light struck the outer metallic rods.
In the experiment, the ICFO researchers sent infrared light through devices made from the van der Waal heterostructures to see how the plasmons propagated in between the outer metallic rods and the graphene.
To get down to the dimensions of one atom for confining the light, the researchers knew that they had to reduce the gap between the metal and the graphene. But the trick was to see if it was possible to reduce that gap without it leading to additional energy losses.
To their surprise, the ICFO researchers observed that even when a monolayer of hexagonal boron nitride was used as a spacer, the plasmons were still excited by the light, and could propagate freely while being confined to a channel of just on atom thick. They managed to switch this plasmon propagation on and off, simply by applying an electrical voltage, demonstrating the control of light guided in channels smaller than one nanometer of height.
The researchers believe that these results could to lead a new generation of optoelectronic devices that are just one nanometer thick. Down the road, this could lead to new devices such as ultra-small optical switches, detectors and sensors.