Physicists rotate beams of light

April 5, 2011 By Florian Aigner
The magnetic field in the thin layer rotates the light waves.

Controlling the rotation of light – this amazing feat was accomplished at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna), by means of a ultra thin semiconductor. This can be used to create a transistor that works with light instead of electrical current.

Light waves can oscillate in different directions – much like a string that can vibrate up and down or left and right – depending on the direction in which it is picked. This is called the polarization of light. Physicists at the Vienna University of Technology have now, together with researchers at Würzburg University, developed a method to control and manipulate the polarization of light using ultra thin layers of semiconductor material. For future research on light and its polarization this is an important step forward – and this breakthrough could even open up possibilities for completely new computer technology. The experiment can be viewed as the optical version of an electronic transistor. The results of the experiment have now been published in the renowned journal Physical Review Letters.

Controlling light with magnetic fields

The polarization of light can change, when it passes through a material in a strong magnetic field. This phenomenon is known as the “Faraday effect”. “So far, however, this effect had only been observed in materials in which it was very weak”, professor Andrei Pimenov explains. He carried out the experiments at the Institute for Solid State Physics of the TU Vienna, together with his assistant Alexey Shuvaev. Using light of the right wavelength and extremely clean semiconductors, scientists in Vienna and Würzburg could achieve a Faraday effect which is orders of magnitude stronger than ever measured before. Now light waves can be rotated into arbitrary directions – the direction of the polarization can be tuned with an external magnetic field. Surprisingly, an ultra-thin layer of less than a thousandth of a millimeter is enough to achieve this. “Such thin layers made of other materials could only change the direction of polarization by a fraction of one degree”, says professor Pimenov. If the beam of light is then sent through a polarization filter, which only allows light of a particular direction of polarization to pass, the scientists can, rotating the direction appropriately, decide whether the beam should pass or not.

The key to this astonishing effect lies in the behavior of the electrons in the semiconductor. The beam of light oscillates the electrons, and the magnetic field deflects their vibrating motion. This complicated motion of the electrons in turn affects the beam of light and changes its direction of .

An optical transistor

In the experiment, a layer of the semiconductor mercury telluride was irradiated with light in the infrared spectral range. “The light has a frequency in the terahertz domain – those are the frequencies, future generations of computers may operate with”, professor Pimenov believes. “For years, the clock rates of computers have not really increased, because a domain has been reached, in which material properties just don’t play along anymore.” A possible solution is to complement electronic circuits with optical elements. In a transistor, the basic element of electronics, an electric current is controlled by an external signal. In the experiment at TU Vienna, a beam of light is controlled by an external . The two systems are very much alike. “We could call our system a light-transistor”, Pimenov suggests.

Before optical circuits for computers can be considered, the newly discovered effect will prove useful as a tool for further research. In optics labs, it will play an important role in research on new materials and the physics of .

Explore further: Quantum electronics: Two photons and chips

More information: Giant Magneto-Optical Faraday Effect in HgTe Thin Films in the Terahertz Spectral Range, Phys. Rev. Lett. 106, 107404 (2011)

Related Stories

Quantum electronics: Two photons and chips

January 20, 2006

Scientists at Toshiba Research Europe Limited (Cambridge, UK) believe they are on to a way of producing entangled twins of photons using a simple semiconductor electronic device. Such a chip-based source of entangled photons ...

Scientists demonstrate laser with controlled polarization

April 13, 2009

Applied scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in collaboration with researchers from Hamamatsu Photonics in Hamamatsu City, Japan, have demonstrated, for the first time, lasers in which ...

Creating a pure spin current in graphene

February 7, 2011

( -- Graphene is a material that has the potential for a number of future applications. Scientists are interested in using graphene for quantum computing and also as a replacement for electronics. However, in ...

Scientists show atoms act like lasers

February 25, 2011

( -- Scientists from The Australian National University have developed an atom laser that behaves exactly like a light laser, opening up new possibilities in things like holograms.

Recommended for you

A quantum of light for materials science

December 1, 2015

Computer simulations that predict the light-induced change in the physical and chemical properties of complex systems, molecules, nanostructures and solids usually ignore the quantum nature of light. Scientists of the Max-Planck ...

Quantum dots used to convert infrared light to visible light

December 1, 2015

(—A team of researchers at MIT has succeeded in creating a double film coating that is able to convert infrared light at modest intensities into visible light. In their paper published in the journal Nature Photonics, ...

Test racetrack dipole magnet produces record 16 tesla field

November 30, 2015

A new world record has been broken by the CERN magnet group when their racetrack test magnet produced a 16.2 tesla (16.2T) peak field – nearly twice that produced by the current LHC dipoles and the highest ever for a dipole ...

Turbulence in bacterial cultures

November 30, 2015

Turbulent flows surround us, from complex cloud formations to rapidly flowing rivers. Populations of motile bacteria in liquid media can also exhibit patterns of collective motion that resemble turbulent flows, provided the ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2011
old news

i read about it ( here on physorg) few days ago
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
Could make an interesting computer display as well.

not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
They were talking about "optical transistors" back in the 70s/80s. Usually adding that "one day they might make computers that run on light 1000x the speed of today's machines". This comes up about every 5 years since then. Google "transphasor" for old news.
not rated yet Apr 06, 2011
Looks like the average optical memristor cell.
not rated yet May 13, 2011
Satellites already transmit this way. they can double the capacity of any given spectra by rotating the light clock wise and counter clockwise. There is a wave guide built into your satellite receiver that sort of splits them onto two different "walls" to be picked up.

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.