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A breakthrough in plasmonics

Posted June 19, 2013

EPFL scientists have discovered how optical signal transmission can be controlled, paving the way for the integration of plasmonics with conventional electronic circuits.

When light hits a metal under certain circumstances, it generates a density wave of the electrons on its surface, like throwing a stone in water. This wave is called a plasmon, and it is small and rapid, occurring at optical frequencies. Plasmonics, the study of plasmons, has gained tremendous interest worldwide as it might offer a way to bridge electronic and optical circuits in technologies like computers, creating superfast processors. However, integrating plasmonics with regular electronic circuits requires the ability to control the plasmons. In an exciting Nano Letters publication, EPFL scientists collaborating with the Max Plank Institute have found how plasmons can be controlled in terms of energy and space.

Optical fibers have already changed the way we communicate by using light to transmit digital data and high bandwidths and across long distances, but require relatively bulky “wires” that are essentially four-layer tubes with reflective interiors. On the other hand, electrical wires are thinner and easier to manufacture, but transmit data at a much lower rate. Plasmonics hold the potential to bridge optics with electronics and combine their benefits without their disadvantages.

The idea is simple: use light to encode and transmit data at optical frequencies across the surface of a conventional electrical wire. Often referred to as “light on a wire”, plasmonics has become a rapidly growing field that promises many exciting new technologies. These include extremely sensitive biosensors, significantly improved telecommunications and a new generation of computer processors that can operate at ultrafast speeds. Since plasmons are waves of excited surface electrons rather than movement of actual particles, plasmonic transmission can be orders of magnitude faster than electronic transmission.

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