Terahertz radiation can induce insulator-to-metal change of state in some materials: study

Jul 25, 2012
Image showing a scanning electron microscope image of damaged vanadium dioxide in the gap of a terahertz metamaterial made of gold. The damage results when strong field enhancement of incident terahertz radiation in the gaps leads to a rapid increase in the energy density following the field-driven insulator-to-metal transition. Image Credit: Mengkun Liu / Mario D'Amato

(Phys.org) -- A team of researchers at Boston University (BU), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a number of other institutions recently observed that certain materials undergo an insulator-to-metal transition under the influence of terahertz (THz) radiation. The study, under the direction of Richard Averitt, professor of physics at Boston University, and Keith Nelson, professor of chemistry at MIT, was published earlier this month in the journal Nature.

The research team achieved a first by demonstrating the use of THz to control the phase () of a material. In this case, the researchers were able to change vanadium dioxide (VO2), from an insulating electronic state to a conducting electronic state.

Terahertz-frequency radiation lies between and in the and shares properties with each. can penetrate a wide variety of non-conducting materials, such as clothing, paper, cardboard, wood, masonry, plastic and ceramics, although the is typically less than that of microwave radiation. According to Harold Hwang, a post-doctoral physical chemist at MIT, electrons moving in a THz electric field can gain considerable energy (charges accelerate in an electric field). Says Hwang, “Sub-picosecond THz pulses can allow us to initiate strong changes in a material. In the case of VO2, the THz pulse actually distorts the potential in which electrons lie, freeing them up to make the material a better conductor.” However, to do this requires very strong THz fields: In this case, the researchers used an antenna-like structure called a split ring resonator to concentrate the electric field of a THz pulse in a small area, increasing the electric field from hundreds of kilovolts per centimeter to about 4 megavolts per centimeter.

“Electric fields of this magnitude can drive not only the phase transition in VO2, but also strong nonlinear responses in many different systems,” says Hwang. “This opens the door to , high-field THz control over electronic and magnetic responses in superconductors, magneto-resistive materials and other correlated electron systems, THz-induced ballistic electron transport in semiconductors, and THz-driven structural change in insulating crystals and glasses.

Hwang adds that, because THz frequencies match the resonant frequencies at which neighboring atoms and molecules in crystal lattices vibrate against each other, THz pulses can drive the lattice vibrations directly—possibly to large amplitudes. THz light can drive electrons and whole atoms and molecules far from their equilibrium locations in a crystal lattice, which can lead to phase transitions in and/or crystal structure. This can occur by literally moving the atoms into the positions they occupy in a new crystalline phase. Experimental attempts at THz-induced structural phase transitions are currently under way.

Research interest in the THz region of the electromagnetic spectrum has increased significantly over the last decade, due to the promise THz light shows in applications ranging from security screening, to bio imaging, to electronics.

The BU and MIT groups and their collaborators have demonstrated the ability to induce a phase transition that changes the conductivity of a VO2 film by two orders of magnitude. Further studies have shown conductivity changes of several orders of magnitude in semiconductors. “This shows a lot of promise in being able to detect , since the change in conductivity can be read out with conventional electronics,” adds Hwang. “We are hopeful that this kind of technology will lead to more sensitive and cheaper THz detectors, possibly leading to practical THz imaging systems for use in several sectors in industry.”

Another promising application of this research is for making Mott-based field-effect transistors (FET) that potentially might overcome intrinsic scaling limitations that currently are being encountered in Silicon (Si)-based transistors. “Electric field switching in the Mott transistors might be a potential substitute for the Si-based FET, in some applications,” says Mengkun Liu, a post-doctoral researcher at UCSD who was a graduate student in Boston University’s Physics Department for this study. “We showed that the THz switching dynamics, investigated by our methods, could be on the order of a few picoseconds. This suggests that transition metal oxide transistors could be used for fast device switching in a wide frequency range (from DC all the way to optical frequency).”

Explore further: Synthesis of a new lean rare earth permanent magnetic compound superior to Nd2Fe14B

More information: “Terahertz-field-induced insulator-to-metal transition in vanadium dioxide metamaterial,” Mengkun Liu, Harold Y. Hwang, Hu Tao, Andrew C. Strikwerda, Kebin Fan, et al., Nature 487, 345-348; doi:10.1038/nature11231

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Photonics: strong vibrations

May 10, 2012

A new approach to generating terahertz radiation will lead to new imaging and sensing applications. The low energy of the radiation means that it can pass through materials that are otherwise opaque, opening ...

Terahertz-controlling device is built

Dec 04, 2006

U.S. government scientists say they've built a device that can manipulate terahertz radiation, perhaps leading to new imaging and communications devices.

Checking people at airports -- with terahertz radiation

Sep 18, 2008

Within the last few years the number of transport checks – above all at airports – has been increased considerably. A worthwhile effort as, after all, it concerns the protection of passengers. Possibilities for new and ...

Terahertz imaging goes the distance

Apr 26, 2007

Terahertz (THz) radiation, or far-infrared light, is potentially very useful for security applications, as it can penetrate clothing and other materials to provide images of concealed weapons, drugs, or other objects. However, ...

Physicists see through the opaque with 'T-rays'

Dec 18, 2009

"T-rays" may make X-rays obsolete as a means of detecting bombs on terrorists or illegal drugs on traffickers, among other uses, contends a Texas A&M physicist who is helping lay the theoretical groundwork to make the concept ...

Recommended for you

A 'Star Wars' laser bullet

12 minutes ago

Action-packed science-fiction movies often feature colourful laser bolts. But what would a real laser missile look like during flight, if we could only make it out? How would it illuminate its surroundings? ...

Backpack physics: Smaller hikers carry heavier loads

22 hours ago

Hikers are generally advised that the weight of the packs they carry should correspond to their own size, with smaller individuals carrying lighter loads. Although petite backpackers might appreciate the ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jul 25, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 25, 2012
Philadelphia experiment.
not rated yet Jul 25, 2012
This has obvious applications for further miniturising transistor technology. Awesome stuff.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2012
Holograms on the way? :-)
1 / 5 (3) Jul 26, 2012
Not to be pessimistic about the technology itself, but what good are new medical scanners going to do when normal people cant get the existing scans anyway, and can't even get a half-assed diagnosis until several years of fighting with idiot doctors and hospitals?

If a senator or a CEO gets sick, they get the "House" treatment until they get the proper diagnosis and cure.

If average joe gets sick, the hospital or emergency room or clinic treats "symptoms," charges them several thousand dollars, or tens or hundreds of thousands in some cases, and then sends them home, often without even a "real" medical diagnosis.

Then they'll have to invent new "specialist" positions at the hospitals and such so that they can read the scans anyway, and given an excuse to charge a few thousand dollars more per visit.
4 / 5 (4) Jul 26, 2012
Oh, well most of the rest of the world doesn't have such a fucked up health system, so new scanners will suit us just fine, thanks.