Demonstrating a fundamentally new optical phenomenon, researchers at Yale University have shown the second half of an optical force that could make silicon photonics devices–such as those used in high-speed communications, network cards, even video and TV cables–faster and more capable.
Results like these showing novel ways to control light “don’t come along very often,” says Oskar Painter, a microphotonics researcher at Caltech who was not involved in the work. “There’s a push to do more with optical components,” Painter adds, and the Yale group’s results are “totally new.”
Scientists theorized in 2005 that tiny beams of light confined on a silicon chip could attract or repel each other when placed in close proximity, similar to the electromagnetic forces between positive and negative charges. Last year a group led by Yale University professor Hong Tang first demonstrated the “attractive” side of this optical force. Now the group has demonstrated the second side of the force, repulsion, which makes its effects reversible.
Previously, says Mo Li, the lead author of the paper published in Nature Photonics, they could “pull” with the force, but they couldn’t “push.” Now the researchers can do both. The accomplishment opens the possibility of using light to manipulate light in microphotonic devices, rather than using mechanical elements like microheaters or power-hungry optical crystals.
Though the force is too weak to use on larger scales–two laser pointers couldn’t attract or repel each other, for example–the optical force operates strongly on the microscale, making it ideal for ultrahigh-speed, all-optical control of nanomechanical devices, according to MIT applied-mathematics professor Steven Johnson. In particular, Johnson points to the importance of being able to switch between attractive and repulsive optical forces, something that has not been experimentally demonstrated before.
Harnessing the optical force should enable faster data transfer in applications like fiber-optic telecommunications, where information can be encoded on multiple wavelengths of light and sped through a single fiber-optic cable in a process called wavelength division multiplexing. This process currently requires converting optical signals to electrical signals for modulation or amplification, and then converting them back to optical signals and sending them on their way. Using light to manipulate the optical signal could eliminate the need for electrical rest stops along the fiber-optic highway. “If you can directly transfer light to light,” says Li, “it will be cheaper and faster.”
Another problem with current optical multiplexing is that the devices that make the process work are relatively large–taking up prime real estate on silicon wafers–and they have to be engineered with strategically placed microheaters, which use changes in temperature to tune each wavelength of light just right. Such devices are slow and can cause cross-talk. Other light-manipulation techniques use special crystal materials that respond to high-intensity light to change the material properties of photonic devices.