Tuned “nano-vibrations” could yield comms advances

Rice University scientists have discovered a new method to tune the light-induced vibrations of nanoparticles through slight alterations to the surface to which the particles are attached. 

According to the University, the discovery could lead to new applications of photonics from molecular sensing to wireless communications

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers at Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) used ultrafast laser pulses to induce the atoms in gold nanodisks to vibrate.

These vibrational patterns – called acoustic phonons – have a characteristic frequency that relates directly to the size of the nanoparticle. The researchers reportedly found they could fine-tune the acoustic response of the particle by varying the thickness of the material to which the nanodisks were attached.

“Our results point toward a straightforward method for tuning the acoustic phonon frequency of a nanostructure in the gigahertz range by controlling the thickness of its adhesion layer,” said lead researcher Stephan Link, associate professor of chemistry and in electrical and computer engineering.

Light has no mass, but each photon that strikes an object imparts a miniscule amount of mechanical motion, thanks to a phenomenon called radiation pressure. A branch of physics – optomechanics – has developed over the past decade to study and exploit radiation pressure for applications like gravity wave detection and low-temperature generation.

Link and colleagues at LANP also specialise in plasmonics, which is devoted to the study of light-activated nanostructures.

When a light pulse of a specific wavelength strikes a metal particle like the puck-shaped gold nanodisks in the LANP experiments, the light energy is converted into plasmons. These plasmons move across the surface of the particle with a characteristic frequency, in much the same way that each phonon has a characteristic vibrational frequency.

The study’s first author, Wei-Shun Chang, a postdoctoral researcher in Link’s lab, and graduate students Fangfang Wen and Man-Nung Su conducted a series of experiments that revealed a direct connection between the resonant frequencies of the plasmons and phonons in nanodisks that had been exposed to laser pulses.

“Heating nanostructures with a short light pulse launches acoustic phonons that depend sensitively on the structure’s dimensions,” Link said in a statement. “Thanks to advanced lithographic techniques, experimentalists can engineer plasmonic nanostructures with great precision. Based on our results, it appears that plasmonic nanostructures may present an interesting alternative to conventional optomechanical oscillators.”

Chang said plasmonics experts often rely on substrates when using electron-beam lithography to pattern plasmonic structures. For example, gold nanodisks like those used in the experiments will not stick to glass slides. But if a thin substrate of titanium or chromium is added to the glass, the disks will adhere and stay where they are placed.

“The substrate layer affects the mechanical properties of the nanostructure, but many questions remain as to how it does this,” Chang said. “Our experiments explored how the thickness of the substrate impacted properties like adhesion and phononic frequency.”