Quantum kisses change the color of nothing

Nov 07, 2012
The image shows, in an artistic manner, the change in color when a quantum tunnel effect is produced in a subnanometric gap. Credit: Cambridge University

Even empty gaps have a colour. Now scientists have shown that quantum jumps of electrons can change the colour of gaps between nano-sized balls of gold. The new results, published today in the journal Nature, set a fundamental quantum limit on how tightly light can be trapped.

The team from the Universities of Cambridge, the and Paris have combined tour de force experiments with advanced theories to show how light interacts with matter at nanometre sizes. The work shows how they can literally see in action in air at room temperature.

Because in a metal move easily, shining light onto a tiny crack pushes onto and off each crack face in turn, at . The oscillating charge across the gap produces a 'plasmonic' colour for the ghostly region in-between, but only when the gap is small enough.

Team leader Professor Jeremy Baumberg from the University of Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory suggests we think of this like the tension building between a flirtatious couple staring into each other's eyes. As their faces get closer the tension mounts, and only a kiss discharges this energy.

In the new experiments, the gap is shrunk below 1nm (1 billionth of a metre) which strongly reddens the gap colour as the charge builds up. However because electrons can jump across the gap by quantum tunnelling, the charge can drain away when the gap is below 0.35nm, seen as a blue-shifting of the colour. As Baumberg says, "It is as if you can kiss without quite touching lips."

Matt Hawkeye, from the experimental team at Cambridge, said: "Lining up the two nano-balls of gold is like closing your eyes and touching together two needles strapped to the end of your fingers. It has taken years of practise to get good at it."

Prof Javier Aizpurua, leader of the theoretical team from San Sebastian complains: "Trying to model so many electrons oscillating inside the gold just cannot be done with existing theories." He has had to fuse classical and quantum views of the world to even predict the colour shifts seen in experiment.

The new insights from this work suggest ways to measure the world down to the scale of single atoms and molecules, and strategies to make useful tiny devices.

Explore further: New research signals big future for quantum radar

More information: The paper 'Capturing the Quantum Regime in Tunneling Plasmonics' will be published in the 07 November edition of Nature. doi:10.1038/nature11653

Related Stories

Seeing quantum mechanics with the naked eye

Jan 09, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- A Cambridge team have built a semiconductor chip that converts electrons into a quantum state that emits light but is large enough to see by eye. Because their quantum superfluid is simply ...

Physicists confine electrons inside nano-pyramids

Sep 28, 2012

(Phys.org)—Quantum dots are nanostructures of semiconducting materials that behave a lot like single atoms and are very easy to produce. Given their special properties, researchers see huge potential for ...

Two graphene layers may be better than one

Apr 27, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have shown that the electronic properties of two layers of graphene vary on the nanometer scale. The surprising new results ...

Recommended for you

New filter could advance terahertz data transmission

Feb 27, 2015

University of Utah engineers have discovered a new approach for designing filters capable of separating different frequencies in the terahertz spectrum, the next generation of communications bandwidth that ...

The super-resolution revolution

Feb 27, 2015

Cambridge scientists are part of a resolution revolution. Building powerful instruments that shatter the physical limits of optical microscopy, they are beginning to watch molecular processes as they happen, ...

Precision gas sensor could fit on a chip

Feb 27, 2015

Using their expertise in silicon optics, Cornell engineers have miniaturized a light source in the elusive mid-infrared (mid-IR) spectrum, effectively squeezing the capabilities of a large, tabletop laser onto a 1-millimeter ...

A new X-ray microscope for nanoscale imaging

Feb 27, 2015

Delivering the capability to image nanostructures and chemical reactions down to nanometer resolution requires a new class of x-ray microscope that can perform precision microscopy experiments using ultra-bright ...

New research signals big future for quantum radar

Feb 26, 2015

A prototype quantum radar that has the potential to detect objects which are invisible to conventional systems has been developed by an international research team led by a quantum information scientist at the University ...

User comments : 0

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.