To trap a rainbow, slow down light

U. BUFFALO (US) — A new material that halts and absorbs light may lead to advances in solar energy, stealth technology, and other fields, experts report.

Researchers developed a “hyperbolic metamaterial waveguide” that halts and ultimately absorbs each frequency of light, at slightly different places in a vertical direction, to catch a “rainbow” of wavelengths. The technology is essentially an advanced microchip made of ultra-thin films of metal and semiconductors and/or insulators.

“Electromagnetic absorbers have been studied for many years, especially for military radar systems,” says Qiaoqiang Gan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at University at Buffalo.

“Right now, researchers are developing compact light absorbers based on optically thick semiconductors or carbon nanotubes. However, it is still challenging to realize the perfect absorber in ultra-thin films with tunable absorption band.

“We are developing ultra-thin films that will slow the light and therefore allow much more efficient absorption, which will address the long existing challenge.”

Light is made of photons that, because they move extremely fast, are difficult to tame. In their initial attempts to slow light, researchers relied upon cryogenic gases, which are very cold—roughly 240 degrees below zero Fahrenheit—and difficult to work with outside a laboratory.

Gan previously helped pioneer a way to slow light without cryogenic gases. He and other researchers at Lehigh University made nanoscale-sized grooves in metallic surfaces at different depths, a process that altered the optical properties of the metal. While the grooves worked, they had limitations. For example, the energy of the incident light cannot be transferred onto the metal surface efficiently, which hampered its use for practical applications.

As reported in the journal Scientific Reports, the waveguide solves that problem because it is a large area of patterned film that can collect the incident light efficiently. It is referred to as an artificial medium with subwavelength features whose frequency surface is hyperboloid, which allows it to capture a wide range of wavelengths in different frequencies, including visible, near-infrared, mid-infrared, terahertz, and microwaves.

Researchers say the technology could lead to advancements in an array of fields.

For example, in electronics there is a phenomenon known as crosstalk, in which a signal transmitted on one circuit or channel creates an undesired effect in another circuit or channel. The on-chip absorber could potentially prevent this.

The on-chip absorber may also be applied to solar panels and other energy-harvesting devices. It could be especially useful in mid-infrared spectral regions as thermal absorber for devices that recycle heat after sundown, Gan says.

Technology such as the stealth bomber involves materials that make planes, ships, and other devices invisible to radar, infrared, sonar, and other detection methods. Because the on-chip absorber has the potential to absorb different wavelengths at a multitude of frequencies, it could be useful as a stealth-coating material.

The University at Buffalo and the National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: University at Buffalo

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  1. Harlan R. Cohen

    Water refracts light noticeably and absorbs EMF. But I am curious jas to what extent light is slowed by this material. Slo-glass is a science fiction convention that could transform a window into a summer landscape during the winter, or project daylight at night, without other energy sources.

  2. zitiboat

    I was wondering to what extent the different energy levels of different wavelengths of light would be prone to regulation problems for output collection. Or is the technology that slows light within the collector array going to shift the wavelength and bend the rays or are we talking light as particles within the structure instead of waves.

  3. Jim McDermott

    I am pleased that you are following these lines of thought.

    I have also wondered how important is the alignment of the polarity of the light and the absorbent material.

    Is some of the inability for very high conversion from one form of energy to another the result of misalignment of the polarity of a portion of source of the energy (light) to the resonant “dipole” (?) of the absorbent material(alignment of the crystalline structure). -I would like to try multiple translucent layers of material laid on top of each other in different polarity alignments -say 120 degrees rotation to each other.

    Best Regards


  4. Denis Thomas

    It does not appear that the light is slowed down, merely filtered to specific wavelengths.

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