Waves of Electrons
Surface plasmons could improve solar cells and wireless devices.
Photons–particles of light–are good at carrying energy and information through space; electrons aren’t, but they’re easier to control. Many modern technologies–imaging systems, solar cells, information networks–need to mediate between footloose photons and well-behaved electrons, but getting the particles to interact with each other can be a challenge.
Recently, researchers trying to bridge the photon-electron divide have been turning to a peculiar physical entity called a surface plasmon, which is like a wave passing through the cloud of electrons on the surface of a metal. Phenomena such as light shining on a sheet of metal induce plasmons, much the way dropping a stone in a pond induces waves. The shape and motion of the waves depend on characteristics of the metal–which could be, say, an ultrathin, perforated sheet or a nanosphere. Below is a sampling of research projects that seek to take advantage of the plasmon’s versatility.