Point of Light
Caltech engineers invent light-focusing device that may lead to applications in computing, communications, and imaging
Credit: Young-Hee Lee
December 6, 2012
PASADENA, Calif.—As technology advances, it tends to shrink. From cell phones to laptops—powered
by increasingly faster and tinier processors—everything is getting thinner and sleeker. And now light beams are
getting smaller, too.
Engineers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have created a device that can focus light into a point
just a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) across—an achievement they say may lead to next-generation applications in computing,
communications, and imaging.
Because light can carry greater amounts of data more efficiently than electrical signals traveling through copper wires,
today's technology is increasingly based on optics. The world is already connected by thousands of miles of optical-fiber cables
that deliver email, images, and the latest video gone viral to your laptop.
As we all produce and consume more data, computers and communication networks must be able to handle the deluge of information.
Focusing light into tinier spaces can squeeze more data through optical fibers and increase bandwidth. Moreover, by being able to
control light at such small scales, optical devices can also be made more compact, requiring less energy to power them.
But focusing light to such minute scales is inherently difficult. Once you reach sizes smaller than the wavelength of light—a few
hundred nanometers in the case of visible light—you reach what's called the diffraction limit, and it's physically impossible to
focus the light any further.
But now the Caltech researchers, co-led by assistant professor of electrical engineering Hyuck Choo, have built a new kind of
waveguide—a tunnellike device that channels light—that gets around this natural limit. The waveguide, which is described in a
recent issue of the journal Nature Photonics, is made of amorphous silicon dioxide—which is similar to common glass—and is covered
in a thin layer of gold. Just under two microns long, the device is a rectangular box that tapers to a point at one end.
As light is sent through the waveguide, the photons interact with electrons at the interface between the gold and the silicon
dioxide. Those electrons oscillate, and the oscillations propagate along the device as waves—similarly to how vibrations of air
molecules travel as sound waves. Because the electron oscillations are directly coupled with the light, they carry the same
information and properties—and they therefore serve as a proxy for the light.
Instead of focusing the light alone—which is impossible due to the diffraction limit—the new device focuses these coupled electron
oscillations, called surface plasmon polaritons (SPPs). The SPPs travel through the waveguide and are focused as they go through
the pointy end.
Because the new device is built on a semiconductor chip with standard nanofabrication techniques, says Choo, the co-lead and
the co-corresponding author of the paper, it is easy integrate with today's technology
Previous on-chip nanofocusing devices were only able to focus light into a narrow line. They also were inefficient,
typically focusing only a few percent of the incident photons, with the majority absorbed and scattered as they traveled through
With the new device, light can ultimately be focused in three dimensions, producing a point a few nanometers across,
and using half of the light that's sent through, Choo says. (Focusing the light into a slightly bigger spot, 14 by 80 nanometers
in size, boosts the efficiency to 70 percent). The key feature behind the device's focusing ability and efficiency, he says,
is its unique design and shape.
"Our new device is based on fundamental research, but we hope it's a good building block for many potentially revolutionary
engineering applications," says Myung-Ki Kim, a postdoctoral scholar and the other lead author of the paper.
For example, one application is to turn this nanofocusing device into an efficient, high-resolution biological-imaging instrument,
Kim says. A biologist can dye specific molecules in a cell with fluorescent proteins that glow when struck by light. Using the new
device, a scientist can focus light into the cell, causing the fluorescent proteins to shine. Because the device concentrates light
into such a small point, it can create a high-resolution map of those dyed molecules. Light can also travel in the reverse
direction through the nanofocuser: by collecting light through the narrow point, the device turns into a high-resolution microscope.
The device can also lead to computer hard drives that hold more memory via heat-assisted magnetic recording. Normal hard drives
consist of rows of tiny magnets whose north and south poles lay end to end. Data is recorded by applying a magnetic field to switch
the polarity of the magnets.
Smaller magnets would allow more memory to be squeezed into a disc of a given size. But the polarities of smaller magnets made of
current materials are unstable at room temperature, causing the magnetic poles to spontaneously flip—and for data to be lost.
Instead, more stable materials can be used—but those require heat to record data. The heat makes the magnets more susceptible to
polarity reversals. Therefore, to write data, a laser is needed to heat the individual magnets, allowing a surrounding magnetic
field to flip their polarities.
A scanning-electron-microscope image of the nanofocusing device.
Credit: Caltech/Hyuck Choo and Myung-Ki Kim
Today's technology, however, can't focus a laser into a beam that is narrow enough to individually heat such tiny magnets.
Indeed, current lasers can only concentrate a beam to an area 300 nanometers wide, which would heat the target magnet as well as
adjacent ones—possibly spoiling other recorded data.
Because the new device can focus light down to such small scales, it can heat smaller magnets individually, making it possible
for hard drives to pack more magnets and therefore more memory. With current technology, discs can't hold more than
1 terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) per square inch. A nanofocusing device, Choo says, can bump that to 50 terabytes per square inch.
Then there's the myriad of data-transfer and communication applications, the researchers say. As computing becomes increasingly
reliant on optics, devices that concentrate and control data-carrying light at the nanoscale will be essential—and ubiquitous,
says Choo, who is a member of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at Caltech. "Don't be surprised if you see a similar kind of device
inside a computer you may someday buy."
The next step is to optimize the design and to begin building imaging instruments and sensors, Choo says. The device is versatile
enough that relatively simple modifications could allow it to be used for imaging, computing, or communication.
The title of the Nature Photonics paper is "Nanofocusing in a metal-insulator-metal gap plasmon waveguide with a three-dimensional
linear taper." In addition to Choo and Kim, the other authors are Matteo Staffaroni, Tae Joon Seok, Jeffrey Bokor, Ming C. Wu, and
Eli Yablonovitch of UC Berkeley and Stefano Cabrini and P. James Schuck of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Science and Technology Surface-Enhanced Raman
Spectroscopy program, the Department of Energy, and the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech.
Written by Marcus Woo
This video shows the final fabrication step of the nanofocusing device.
A stream of high-energy gallium ions blasts away unwanted layers of gold and silicon dioxide to
carve out the shape of the device.
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