New engineering research at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates that polaritons have increased coupling strength when confined to nanoscale semiconductors. This represents a promising advance in the field of photonics: smaller and faster circuits that use light rather than electricity. The research was conducted by assistant professor Ritesh Agarwal, postdoctoral fellow Lambert van Vugt and graduate student Brian Piccione of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. Chang-Hee Cho and Pavan Nukala, also of the Materials Science department, contributed to the study.
Their work was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Polaritons are quasiparticles, combinations of physical particles and the energy they contribute to a system that can be measured and tracked as a single unit. Polaritons are combinations of photons and another quasiparticle, excitons. Together, they have qualities of both light and electric charge, without being fully either.
“An exciton is a combination of a an electron, which has negative charge and an electron hole, which has a positive charge. Light is an oscillating electro-magnetic field, so it can couple with the excitons,” Agarwal said. “When their frequencies match, they can talk to one another; both of their oscillations become more pronounced.”
High light-matter coupling strength is a key factor in designing photonic devices, which would use light instead of electricity and thus be faster and use less power than comparable electronic devices. However, the coupling strength exhibited within bulk semiconductors had always been thought of as a fixed property of the material they were made of.
Agarwal’s team proved that, with the proper fabrication and finishing techniques, this limit can be broken.
“When you go from bulk sizes to one micron, the light-matter coupling strength is pretty constant,” Agarwal said. “But, if you try to go below 500 nanometers or so, what we have shown is that this coupling strength increases dramatically.”
The difference is a function of one of nanotechnology‘s principle phenomena: the traits of a bulk material are different than structures of the same material on the nanoscale.
“When you’re working at bigger sizes, the surface is not as important. The surface to volume ratio — the number of atoms on the surface divided by the number of atoms in the whole material — is a very small number,” Agarwal said. “But when you make a very small structure, say 100 nanometers, this number is dramatically increased. Then what is happening on the surface critically determines the device’s properties.”
Other researchers have tried to make polariton cavities on this small a scale, but the chemical etching method used to fabricate the devices damages the semiconductor surface. The defects on the surface trap the excitons and render them useless.
“Our cadmium sulfide nanowires are self-assembled; we don’t etch them. But the surface quality was still a limiting factor, so we developed techniques of surface passivation. We grew a silicon oxide shell on the surface of the wires and greatly improved their optical properties,” Agarwal said.
The oxide shell fills the electrical gaps in the nanowire surface, preventing the excitons from getting trapped.
“We also developed tools and techniques for measuring this light-matter coupling strength,” Piccione said. “We’ve quantified the light-matter coupling strength, so we can show that it’s enhanced in the smaller structures,”
Being able to quantify this increased coupling strength opens the door for designing nanophotonic circuit elements and devices.
“The stronger you can make light-matter coupling, the better you can make photonic switches,” Agarwal said. “Electrical transistors work because electrons care what other electrons are doing, but, on their own, photons do not interact with each other. You need to combine optical properties with material properties to make it work.”