Gold shines light on optical chips

Researchers have found that gold “shines” in a different way at the nanoscale, and the insights may lead to new optical chips for computers.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have found that gold “shines” in a different way at the nanoscale, and the insights may lead to new optical chips for computers or for switches and routers in fibre networks.

Nanoscale materials exhibit entirely different properties from conventional materials. Specifically, temperature, electricity and magnetism are completely different from that of conventional materials, and could form the basis of new technologies.

The Argonne researchers examined the characteristics of photoluminescence – the emission of light when electrons are stimulated – in gold nanorods, and found that they could control the wavelength of the light emitted by the material, making it possible to use as a light source inside an optical chip, allowing transmission of information through light. “The light emitted is dependent on the shape of the gold nanorods,” said Gary Wiederrecht, Argonne scientist and leader of the research team.

The gold nanorods are about 20 nanometres wide and range from 70 to 300 nanometres long. The rod-like shape of the material is important, Wiederrecht explained, because the rod shape determines the energy of the collective electronic excitations that radiate light.

Photoluminescence at different wavelengths is achieved in nanorods of differing lengths. The rod shape also produces enhanced absorption of the illumination, increasing the light intensity and also concentrating that intensity to levels high enough to create luminescence.

“The rods have strong absorption characteristics in the near-infrared range,” Wiederrecht said. The experimenters used an ultrafast titanium-sapphire laser beam at 800 nanometres to create the photoluminescence.

While the research has future implications for technological advances, Wiederrecht explained that his group has done basic research, an examination of the material for a fundamental understanding of its characteristics. The longer-term implications of the work include the ability to produce nanoscale light sources for faster and smaller optical devices and novel photoluminescent sensors.

“Because materials at the nanoscale behave so differently from conventional materials, we’re starting all over again, in a way, to understand how and why these nanomaterials function,” Wiederrecht said.