Light beam could lead to more powerful microprocessors

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An international team of researchers has demonstrated a new type of light beam that propagates without spreading outwards, remaining very narrow and controlled along an unprecedented distance.

Dubbed ‘needle beam’ by the Harvard-led team, the development could reduce signal loss for on-chip optical systems and may eventually assist the development of a new class of powerful microprocessors.

Based at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Carnot de Bourgogne (CNRS) in France, the applied physicists characterised and created this needle beam, which travels at the interface of gold and air.

Their findings were published online on 31 August in the journal Physical Review Letters.

According to a statement, the needle beam arises from surface plasmons, which travel in tight confinement with a metal surface. The metallic stripes that carry these surface plasmons have the potential to replace standard copper electrical interconnects in microprocessors, enabling ultrafast on-chip communications.

One of the fundamental problems that has so far hindered the development of such optical interconnects is the fact that all waves naturally spread laterally during propagation, a phenomenon known as diffraction. This reduces the portion of the signal that can be detected.

‘We have made a major step toward solving this problem by discovering and experimentally confirming the existence of a previously overlooked solution of Maxwell’s equations that govern all light phenomena,’ said principal investigator Federico Capasso. ‘The solution is a highly localised surface plasmon wave that propagates for a long distance, approximately 80 microns in our experiments, in a straight line without any diffraction.’

The so-called needle beam (a cosine-Gauss plasmon beam) propagates in tight confinement with a nanostructured metal surface.

Lead author Jiao Lin, a visiting postdoctoral fellow at SEAS from the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing and Technology, and co-author Patrice Genevet, a research associate in Capasso’s group, found a way to demonstrate the theorised phenomenon by sculpting two sets of grooves into a gold film that was plated onto the surface of a glass sheet.

These grooves intersect at an angle to form a metallic grating. When illuminated by a laser, the device launches two tilted, plane surface waves, which interfere constructively to create the non-diffracting beam.

‘Our French colleagues did a beautiful experiment, using an ultra-high-resolution microscope to image the needle-shaped beam propagating for a long distance across the gold surface,’ said Genevet.

Capasso’s team hopes the finding will assist the development of more energy-efficient and powerful microprocessors.