Taming tiny, unruly waves for nano optics

October 8, 2007
Taming tiny, unruly waves for nano optics
Waves of electromagnetic energy passing through a vacuum between two plates of silicon carbide just 100 nanometers apart, one at an elevated temperature. The lines represent the energy stream, bending the light as it is pushed through the small gap. Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology

Nanoscale devices present a unique challenge to any optical technology -- there’s just not enough room for light to travel in a straight line.

On the nanoscale, energy may be produced by radiating photons of light between two surfaces very close together (sometimes as close as 10 nanometers), smaller than the wavelength of the light. Light behaves much differently on the nanoscale as its wavelength is interrupted, producing unstable waves called evanescent waves. The direction of these unpredictable waves can’t be calculated, so researchers face the daunting task of designing nanotechnologies to work with the tiny, yet potentially useful waves of light.

Researchers at Georgia Tech have discovered a way to predict the behavior of these unruly waves of light during nanoscale radiation heat transfer, opening the door to the design of a spectrum of new nanodevices (or NEMS) and nanotechnologies, including solar thermal energy technologies. Their findings were featured on the cover of the Oct. 8 issue of Applied Physics Letters.

“This discovery gives us the fundamental information to determine things like how far apart plates should be and what size they should be when designing a technology that uses nanoscale radiation heat transfer,” said Zhuomin Zhang, a lead researcher on the project and a professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “Understanding the behavior of light at this scale is the key to designing technologies to take advantage of the unique capabilities of this phenomenon.”

The Georgia Tech research team set out to study evanescent waves in nanoscale radiation energy transfer (between two very close surfaces at different temperatures by means of thermal radiation). Because the direction of evanescent waves is seemingly unknowable (an imaginary value) in physics terms, Zhang’s group instead decided to follow the direction of the electromagnetic energy flow (also known as a Poynting vector) to predict behavior rather than the direction of the photons.

“We’re using classic electrodynamics to explain the behavior of the waves, not quantum mechanics,” Zhang said. “We’re predicting the energy propagation -- and not the actual movement -- of the photons.”

The challenge is that electrodynamics work differently on the nanoscale and the Georgia Tech team would need to pinpoint those differences. Planck’s law, a more than 100-year-old theory about how electromagnetic waves radiate, does not apply on the nanoscale due to fact that the space between surfaces is smaller than a wavelength.

The Georgia Tech team observed that instead of normal straight line radiation, the light was bending as protons tunneled through the vacuum in between the two surfaces just nanometers apart. The team also noticed that the evanescent waves were separating during this thermal process, allowing them to visualize and predict the energy path of the waves.

Understanding the behavior of such waves is critical to the design of many devices that use nanotechnology, including near-field thermophotovoltaic systems, nanoscale imaging based on thermal radiation scanning tunneling microscopy and scanning photon-tunneling microscopy, said Zhang.

Source: Georgia Institute of Technology

Explore further: The world's fastest nanoscale photonics switch

Related Stories

The world's fastest nanoscale photonics switch

October 28, 2015

An international team of researchers from Lomonosov Moscow State University and the Australian National University in Canberra created an ultrafast all-optical switch on silicon nanostructures. This device may become a platform ...

Recommended for you

Mathematicians identify limits to heat flow at the nanoscale

November 24, 2015

How much heat can two bodies exchange without touching? For over a century, scientists have been able to answer this question for virtually any pair of objects in the macroscopic world, from the rate at which a campfire can ...

New sensor sends electronic signal when estrogen is detected

November 24, 2015

Estrogen is a tiny molecule, but it can have big effects on humans and other animals. Estrogen is one of the main hormones that regulates the female reproductive system - it can be monitored to track human fertility and is ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.