Squeezing light into tiny circuits and controlling its flow electrically is a holy grail that has become a realistic scenario thanks to the discovery of graphene. This tantalizing goal is realized by exploiting so-called plasmons, in which electrons and light move together as one coherent wave. Plasmons guided by graphene -a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms -- are remarkable as they can be confined to length scales of nanometers, one to two hundred times below the wavelength of light. However, until now these plasmons were found to rapidly lose energy, limiting the range over which they could travel.
This problem has now been solved, as shown by researchers from the Nano-optoelectonics group at ICFO led by Prof. Frank Koppens, in a collaboration with CIC nanoGUNE (San Sebastian, Spain), CNR/Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa, Italy) -- members of the EU Graphene Flagship -- and Columbia University (New York, USA).
Since the discovery of graphene, many other two-dimensional materials have been isolated in the laboratory. One example is boron nitride, a very good insulator. A combination of these two unique two-dimensional materials has provided the solution to the quest for controlling light in tiny circuits and suppression of losses. When graphene is encapsulated in boron nitride, electrons can move ballistically for long distances without scattering, even at room temperature. This new research shows that the graphene/boron nitride material system is also an excellent host for extremely strongly confined light and suppression of plasmon losses.
The research, carried out by ICFO PhD students Achim Woessner and Yuando Gao and postdoctoral fellow Mark Lundeberg, is just the beginning of a series of discoveries on nano-optoelectronic properties of new heterostructures based on combining different kinds of two-dimensional materials. The material heterostructure was first discovered by the researchers at Columbia University.
The research team also performed theoretical studies. Marco Polini, from CNR/Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa) and the IIT Graphene Labs (Genova, Italy), laid down a theory and performed calculations together with their collaborators.
These findings pave the way for extremely miniaturized optical circuits and devices that could be useful for optical and/or biological sensing, information processing or data communications.
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