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March 07, 2012

Pitt Research Team Says Communication Technologies Including Smartphones and Laptops Could Now Be 1,000 Times Faster

The Pitt team has generated a frequency comb with more than a 100 terahertz bandwidth as a means to process communications data at a remarkably rapid speed.

Many of the communication tools of today rely on the function of light or, more specifically, on applying information to a light wave. Up until now, studies on electronic and optical devices with materials that are the foundations of modern electronics—such as radio, TV, and computers—have generally relied on nonlinear optical effects, producing devices whose bandwidth has been limited to the gigahertz (GHz) frequency region. (Hertz stands for cycles per second of a periodic phenomenon, in this case 1billion cycles). Thanks to research performed at the University of Pittsburgh, a physical basis for terahertz bandwidth (THz, or 1 trillion cycles per second)—the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum between infrared and microwave light—has now been demonstrated.

Nature Photonics - Frequency comb generation at terahertz frequencies by coherent phonon excitation in silicon
Schematic of refractive index modulation in silicon.





High-order nonlinear light–matter interactions in gases enable the generation of X-ray and attosecond light pulses, metrology and spectroscopy. Optical nonlinearities in solid-state materials are particularly interesting for combining optical and electronic functions for high-bandwidth information processing. Third-order nonlinear optical processes in silicon have been used to process optical signals with bandwidths greater than 1 GHz. However, fundamental physical processes for a silicon-based optical modulator in the terahertz bandwidth range have not yet been explored. Here, we demonstrate ultrafast phononic modulation of the optical index of silicon by irradiation with intense few-cycle femtosecond pulses. The anisotropic reflectivity modulation by the resonant Raman susceptibility at the fundamental frequency of the longitudinal optical phonon of silicon (15.6 THz) generates a frequency comb up to seventh order. All-optical over 100 THz frequency comb generation is realized by harnessing the coherent atomic motion of the silicon crystalline lattice at its highest mechanical frequency.

To investigate the optical properties of a silicon crystal, Petek and his team investigated the change in reflectivity after excitation with an intense laser pulse. Following the excitation, the team observed that the amount of reflected light oscillates at 15.6 THz, the highest mechanical frequency of atoms within a silicon lattice. This oscillation caused additional change in the absorption and reflection of light, multiplying the fundamental oscillation frequency by up to seven times to generate the comb of frequencies extending beyond 100 THz. Petek and his team were able to observe the production of such a comb of frequencies from a crystalline solid for the first time.

“Although we expected to see the oscillation at 15.6 THz, we did not realize that its excitation could change the properties of silicon in such dramatic fashion,” says Petek. “The discovery was both the result of developing unique instrumentation and incisive analysis by the team members.”

Petek notes the team’s achievements are the result of developing experimental and theoretical tools to better understand how electrons and atoms interact in solids under intense optical excitation and of the invested interest by Pitt’s Dietrich School in advanced instrumentation and laboratory infrastructure.

The team is currently investigating the coherent oscillation of electrons, which could further extend the ability of harnessing light-matter interactions from the terahertz- to the petahertz-frequency range. Petahertz is a unit of measure for very fast frequencies (1 quadrillion hertz).

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