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July 01, 2010

Transformation optics make a U-turn for the better

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Schematic on the left shows the scattering of surface plasmon polaritons (SPPs) on a metal-dielectric interface with a single protrusion. Schematic on right shows how SPP scattering is dramatically suppressed when the optical space around the protrusion is transformed. (Image courtesy of Zhang group)

Powerful new microscopes able to resolve DNA molecules with visible light, superfast computers that use light rather than electronic signals to process information, and Harry Potteresque invisibility cloaks are just some of the many thrilling promises of transformation optics. In this burgeoning field of science, light waves can be controlled at all lengths of scale through the unique structuring of metamaterials, composites typically made from metals and dielectrics – insulators that become polarized in the presence of an electromagnetic field. The idea is to transform the physical space through which light travels, sometimes referred to as “optical space,” in a manner similar to the way in which outer space is transformed by the presence of a massive object under Einstein’s relativity theory.

* it is difficult to modify the physical properties of metamaterials at the nano or subwavelength scale, mainly because of the metals.

* Berkeley have shown it might be possible to go around that metal roadblock. Using sophisticated computer simulations, they have demonstrated that with only moderate modifications of the dielectric component of a metamaterial, it should be possible to achieve practical transformation optics results. The key to success is the combination of transformation optics with another promising new field of science known as plasmonics.


A plasmon is an electronic surface wave that rolls through the sea of conduction electrons on a metal. Just as the energy in waves of light is carried in quantized particle-like units called photons, so, too, is plasmonic energy carried in quasi-particles called plasmons. Plasmons will interact strongly with photons at the interface of a metamaterial’s metal and dielectric to form yet another quasi-particle called a surface plasmon polariton(SPP). Manipulation of these SPPs is at the heart of the astonishing optical properties of metamaterials.

They have dubbed a “transformational plasmon optics” approach that involved manipulation of the dielectric material adjacent to a metal but not the metal itself. This novel approach was shown to make it possible for SPPs to travel across uneven and curved surfaces over a broad range of wavelengths without suffering significant scattering losses. Using this model, Zhang and his team then designed a plasmonic waveguide with a 180 degree bend that won’t alter the energy or properties of a light beam as it makes the U-turn. They also designed a plasmonic version of a Luneburg lens, the ball-shaped lenses that can receive and resolve optical waves from multiple directions at once.

Field distribution after the transformation of a dielectric material shows the nearly perfect transmission of a light beam around a 180 degree bend. (Image courtesy of Zhang group)

In addition to the 180 degree plasmonic bend and the plasmonic Luneburg lens, our approach should also enable the design and production of beam splitters and shifters, and directional light emitters. The technique should also be applicable to the construction of integrated, compact optical data-processing chips

Compared with silicon-based photonic devices the use of plasmonics could help to further scale- down the total size of photonic devices and increase the interaction of light with certain materials, which should improve performance.

"We envision that the unique design flexibility of the transformational plasmon optics approach may open a new door to nano optics and photonic circuit design," Zhang says.

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