Nav: Home

Squeezing light at the nanoscale

June 15, 2018

Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a new technique to squeeze infrared light into ultra-confined spaces, generating an intense, nanoscale antenna that could be used to detect single biomolecules.

The researchers harnessed the power of polaritons, particles that blur the distinction between light and matter. This ultra-confined light can be used to detect very small amounts of matter close to the polaritons. For example, many hazardous substances, such as formaldehyde, have an infrared signature that can be magnified by these antennas. The shape and size of the polaritons can also be tuned, paving the way to smart infrared detectors and biosensors.

The research is published in Science Advances.

"This work opens up a new frontier in nanophotonics," said Federico Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering, and senior author of the study. "By coupling light to atomic vibrations, we have concentrated light into nanodevices much smaller than its wavelength, giving us a new tool to detect and manipulate molecules."

Polaritons are hybrid quantum mechanical particles, made up of a photon strongly coupled to vibrating atoms in a two-dimensional crystal.

"Our goal was to harness this strong interaction between light and matter and engineer polaritons to focus light in very small spaces," said Michele Tamagnone, postdoctoral fellow in Applied Physics at SEAS and co-first author of the paper.

The researchers built nano-discs -- the smallest about 50 nanometers high and 200 nanometers wide -- made of two-dimensional boron nitride crystals. These materials act as micro-resonators, trapping infrared photons and generating polaritons. When illuminated with infrared light, the discs were able to concentrate light in a volume thousands of times smaller than is possible with standard optical materials, such as glass.

At such high concentrations, the researchers noticed something curious about the behavior of the polaritons: they oscillated like water sloshing in a glass, changing their oscillation depending on the frequency of the incident light.

"If you tip a cup back-and-forth, the water in the glass oscillates in one direction. If you swirl your cup, the water inside the glass oscillates in another direction. The polaritons oscillate in a similar way, as if the nano-discs are to light what a cup is to water," said Tamagnone.

Unlike traditional optical materials, these boron nitride crystals are not limited in size by the wavelength of light, meaning there is no limit to how small the cup can be. These materials also have tiny optical losses, meaning that light confined to the disc can oscillate for a long time before it settles, making the light inside even more intense.

The researchers further concentrated light by placing two discs with matching oscillations next to each other, trapping light in the 50-nanometer gap between them and creating an infrared antenna. As light concentrates in smaller and smaller volumes, its intensity increases, creating optical fields so strong they can exert measurable force on nearby particles.

"These light-induced forces serve also as one our detection mechanisms," said Antonio Ambrosio, a principal scientist at Harvard's Center for Nanoscale Systems. "We observed this ultra-confined light by the motion it induces on an atomically sharp tip connected to a cantilever."

A future challenge for the Harvard team is to optimize these light nano-concentrators to achieve intensities high enough to enhance the interaction with a single molecule to detectable values.
-end-
This research was co-authored by Kundan Chaudhary, Luis A. Jauregui, Philip Kim and William L. Wilson. It was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Related Engineering Articles:

Next frontier in bacterial engineering
A new technique overcomes a serious hurdle in the field of bacterial design and engineering.
COVID-19 and the role of tissue engineering
Tissue engineering has a unique set of tools and technologies for developing preventive strategies, diagnostics, and treatments that can play an important role during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Engineering the meniscus
Damage to the meniscus is common, but there remains an unmet need for improved restorative therapies that can overcome poor healing in the avascular regions.
Artificially engineering the intestine
Short bowel syndrome is a debilitating condition with few treatment options, and these treatments have limited efficacy.
Reverse engineering the fireworks of life
An interdisciplinary team of Princeton researchers has successfully reverse engineered the components and sequence of events that lead to microtubule branching.
New method for engineering metabolic pathways
Two approaches provide a faster way to create enzymes and analyze their reactions, leading to the design of more complex molecules.
Engineering for high-speed devices
A research team from the University of Delaware has developed cutting-edge technology for photonics devices that could enable faster communications between phones and computers.
Breakthrough in blood vessel engineering
Growing functional blood vessel networks is no easy task. Previously, other groups have made networks that span millimeters in size.
Next-gen batteries possible with new engineering approach
Dramatically longer-lasting, faster-charging and safer lithium metal batteries may be possible, according to Penn State research, recently published in Nature Energy.
What can snakes teach us about engineering friction?
If you want to know how to make a sneaker with better traction, just ask a snake.
More Engineering News and Engineering Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Meditations on Loneliness
Original broadcast date: April 24, 2020. We're a social species now living in isolation. But loneliness was a problem well before this era of social distancing. This hour, TED speakers explore how we can live and make peace with loneliness. Guests on the show include author and illustrator Jonny Sun, psychologist Susan Pinker, architect Grace Kim, and writer Suleika Jaouad.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.