Plasmonic potential

light beam striking a metal surface can generate plasmons, electron density waves that can carry huge amounts of data. If focused on a surface etched with a circular groove, as in this artist’s rendering, the beam produces concentric waves, organizing the electrons into high- and low-density rings.

Over the past decade investigators have found that by creatively designing the metal-dielectric interface they can generate surface plasmons with the same frequency as the outside electromagnetic waves but with a much shorter wavelength. This phenomenon could allow the plasmons to travel along nanoscale wires called interconnects, carrying information from one part of a microprocessor to another. Plasmonic interconnects would be a great boon for chip designers, who have been able to develop ever smaller and faster transistors but have had a harder time building minute electronic circuits that can move data quickly across the chip.

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The field of plasmonics received another boost with the discovery of novel “metamaterials”–materials in which electron oscillations can result in astounding optical properties.

Hideki Miyazaki of the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan obtained a striking result by squeezing red light (with a wavelength of 651 nanometers in free space) into a plasmon slot waveguide that was only three nanometers thick and 55 nanometers wide. The researchers found that the wavelength of the surface plasmon propagating through the device was 51 nanometers, or about 8 percent of the free-space wavelength. Plasmon slot waveguides are capable of trans­mit­ting a signal as far as tens of microns.

Plasmonics can thus generate signals in the soft x-ray range of wavelengths (between 10 and 100 nanometers) by exciting materials with visible light. The wavelength can be reduced by more than a factor of 10 relative to its free-space value, and yet the frequency of the signal remains the same.

Just as lithography is now used to imprint circuit patterns on silicon chips, a similar process could mass-produce minuscule plasmonic devices with arrays of narrow dielectric stripes and gaps. These arrays would guide the waves of positive and negative charge on the metal surface; the alternating charge densities would be very much akin to the alternating current traveling along an ordinary wire. But because the frequency of an optical signal is so much higher than that of an electrical one–more than 400,000 gigahertz versus 60 hertz–the plasmonic circuit would be able to carry much more data. Moreover, because electrical charge does not travel from one end of a plasmonic circuit to another–the electrons bunch together and spread apart rather than streaming in a single direct­ion–the device is not subject to resistance and capacitance effects that limit the data-carrying capacity of integrated circuits with electrical interconnects.

Plasmonic circuits would be even faster and more useful if researchers could devise a “plasmonster” switch–a three-terminal plasmonic device with transistorlike properties. The Caltech lab and other research groups have recently developed low-power versions of such a switch. If scientists can produce plasmonsters with better performance, the devices could serve as the core of an ultrafast signal-processing system, an advance that could revolutionize computing 10 to 20 years from now.

Human and animal tissues are transparent to radiation at certain infrared wavelengths. Non-toxic plasmonic nanoshells have been injected into the bloodstream of mice and killed all traces of cancer within 10 days.

Plasmonic materials may also revolutionize the lighting industry by making LEDs bright enough to compete with incandescent bulbs. Coating the surface of a gallium nitride LED with dense arrays of plasmonic nanoparticles (made of silver, gold or aluminum) could increase the intensity of the emitted light 14-fold. Plasmonic nano­part­icles may enable researchers to develop LEDs made of silicon. Such devices, which would be much cheaper than conventional LEDs composed of gallium nitride or gallium arsenide, are currently held back by their low rates of light emission.

Calculations indicate that careful tuning of the plasmonic resonance fre­quency and precise control of the sep­ar­ation between the metallic particles and the semiconductor materials may enable increasing radiative rates more than 100-fold, allowing silicon LEDs to shine just as brightly as tra­di­tional devices.