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Israeli scientists show they can ‘shrink’ optical technology by 1,000 times

Trapping and observing light in super-thin materials, Technion researchers say their work may pave way for new generation of tiny light-powered tech

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Light in single layer materials, as captured by researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Prof. Ido Kaminer and his research team)
Light in single layer materials, as captured by researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Prof. Ido Kaminer and his research team)

Israeli scientists have passed light waves through a material 1,000 times thinner than fiber optics, in an advance they say could pave the way for new technologies.

“One thing that is limiting optical technology in general is the size of the light waves that need transmitting,” Professor Ido Kaminer told The Times of Israel. “They are too big to interact with microchips, which means our devices are slower than we would like.”

If the fiber optic cables that carry internet to our homes had a core much smaller than their current one micron, they simply wouldn’t carry the required information, he said.

“What we have done is taken a step toward more compact optical technology — we’ve actually made a discovery that helps to shrink optical technology,” he said.

“Instead of having a fiber optic cable with a core of one micron, we’ve shown it is possible that in the future we could be using the materials my lab is working with, which can be as thin as one nanometer,” or a thousandth of a micron.

Kaminer and his PhD students Yaniv Kurman and Raphael Dahan documented their achievement in a newly published article in the peer-reviewed journal Science, prompting plaudits from scholars unconnected to the research.

The Technion researchers behind the new study on light waves, from left to right, Yaniv Kurman, Raphael Dahan and Professor Ido Kaminer (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)

“I was thrilled by these findings,” said Professor Harald Giessen, from the University of Stuttgart, who was not a part of this research, in comments he provided to the Technion. “This presents a real breakthrough in ultrafast nano-optics, and represents state of the art and the leading edge of the scientific frontier.”

The scientific community is fascinated by the potential 2D materials, so-called because they are so thin they consist of just one layer of atoms (they are also called single-layer materials). But while scientists have designed experiments confirming that light passed through them, they couldn’t observe it directly, which meant they couldn’t start harnessing 2D materials for optical technology.

Now, Kaminer’s lab in the electrical and computer engineering faculty at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has successfully “trapped” light in this unique material — a few layers of it gathered together — and observed it with a groundbreaking quantum microscope that was built on site.

The scientists shone pulses of light along the edge of a 2D material. They noted a range of interesting behaviors, some of which they don’t yet fully understand — the light generated hybrid sound-light waves, the pulses can spontaneously speed up and slow down, and the waves split into two separate pulses, moving at different speeds.

All of this will be studied, but the very fact that his team could observe — and record — the light in such tiny materials is an important first step to harnessing them for technology, Kaminer said.

“Eventually, these materials could be used for high-speed communications, and could change our devices,” he said.

The setup in the lab used in the new research, including a quantum microscope, developed and used by Prof. Ido Kaminer (courtesy of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology)

“There is a gap between the fast internet that arrives in our homes and the devices we have, which don’t use optical technology but rather electronics. They need to use electronics because today light technology is too big to sit on chips. However, the dream is to scale it down so that optical technology can be used within devices,” Kaminer added.

“Our achievement now with 2D materials may help to make this dream possible.”

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