a, The plasmonic laser consists of a CdS semiconductor nanowire on top of a silver substrate, separated by a nanometre-scale MgF2 layer of thickness h. This structure supports a new type of plasmonic mode16 the mode size of which can be a hundred times smaller than a diffraction-limited spot. The inset shows a scanning electron microscope image of a typical plasmonic laser, which has been sliced perpendicular to the nanowire’s axis to show the underlying layers. b, The stimulated electric field distribution and direction |E(x, y)| of a hybrid plasmonic mode at a wavelength of = 489 nm, corresponding to the CdS I2 exciton line25. The cross-sectional field plots (along the broken lines in the field map) illustrate the strong overall confinement in the gap region between the nanowire and metal surface with sufficient modal overlap in the semiconductor to facilitate gain.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have reached a new milestone in laser physics by creating the world’s smallest semiconductor laser, capable of generating visible light in a space smaller than a single protein molecule.
This breakthrough, described in an advanced online publication of the journal Nature on Sunday, Aug. 30, breaks new ground in the field of optics. The UC Berkeley team not only successfully squeezed light into such a tight space, but found a novel way to keep that light energy from dissipating as it moved along, thereby achieving laser action.
“This work shatters traditional notions of laser limits, and makes a major advance toward applications in the biomedical, communications and computing fields,” said Xiang Zhang, professor of mechanical engineering and director of UC Berkeley’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and head of the research team behind this work.
The achievement helps enable the development of such innovations as nanolasers that can probe, manipulate and characterize DNA molecules; optics-based telecommunications many times faster than current technology; and optical computing in which light replaces electronic circuitry with a corresponding leap in speed and processing power.
While it is traditionally accepted that an electromagnetic wave – including laser light – cannot be focused beyond the size of half its wavelength, research teams around the world have found a way to compress light down to dozens of nanometers by binding it to the electrons that oscillate collectively at the surface of metals. This interaction between light and oscillating electrons is known as surface plasmons.
Scientists have been racing to construct surface plasmon lasers that can sustain and utilize these tiny optical excitations. However, the resistance inherent in metals causes these surface plasmons to dissipate almost immediately after being generated, posing a critical challenge to achieving the buildup of the electromagnetic field necessary for lasing.
Zhang and his research team took a novel approach to stem the loss of light energy by pairing a cadmium sulfide nanowire – 1,000 times thinner than a human hair – with a silver surface separated by an insulating gap of only 5 nanometers, the size of a single protein molecule. In this structure, the gap region stores light within an area 20 times smaller than its wavelength. Because light energy is largely stored in this tiny non-metallic gap, loss is significantly diminished.
With the loss finally under control through this unique “hybrid” design, the researchers could then work on amplifying the light.
Polarisation of laser emission from a plasmonic and
photonic lasers: the arrows indicate the direction of the |E| field. The |E| field of the plasmon laser mode is predominantly polarised along the nanowire axis and scatters most effectively to radiation with a similar polarisation
Laser science has been successful in producing increasingly high-powered, faster and smaller coherent light sources. Examples of recent advances are microscopic lasers that can reach the diffraction limit, based on photonic crystals, metal-clad cavities and nanowires. However, such lasers are restricted, both in optical mode size and physical device dimension, to being larger than half the wavelength of the optical field, and it remains a key fundamental challenge to realize ultracompact lasers that can directly generate coherent optical fields at the nanometre scale, far beyond the diffraction limit. A way of addressing this issue is to make use of surface plasmons which are capable of tightly localizing light, but so far ohmic losses at optical frequencies have inhibited the realization of truly nanometre-scale lasers based on such approaches. A recent theoretical work predicted that such losses could be significantly reduced while maintaining ultrasmall modes in a hybrid plasmonic waveguide. Here we report the experimental demonstration of nanometre-scale plasmonic lasers, generating optical modes a hundred times smaller than the diffraction limit. We realize such lasers using a hybrid plasmonic waveguide consisting of a high-gain cadmium sulphide semiconductor nanowire, separated from a silver surface by a 5-nm-thick insulating gap. Direct measurements of the emission lifetime reveal a broad-band enhancement of the nanowire’s exciton spontaneous emission rate by up to six times owing to the strong mode confinement and the signature of apparently threshold-less lasing. Because plasmonic modes have no cutoff, we are able to demonstrate downscaling of the lateral dimensions of both the device and the optical mode. Plasmonic lasers thus offer the possibility of exploring extreme interactions between light and matter, opening up new avenues in the fields of active photonic circuits, bio-sensing and quantum information technology