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Hyperbolic metamaterials: A step closer to reality

Posted: 14 May 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Purdue University  solar cell  hyperbolic metamaterial  plasmon  superlattice 

A team of researchers has taken a step leading to practical applications for "hyperbolic metamaterials," ultra-thin crystalline films that have potential to bring optical advances such as powerful microscopes, quantum computers and high-performance solar cells.

New developments are reminiscent of advances that ushered in silicon chip technology, said Alexandra Boltasseva, a Purdue University associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Optical metamaterials harness clouds of electrons called surface plasmons to manipulate and control light. However, some of the plasmonic components under development rely on the use of metals such as gold and silver, which are incompatible with the complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) manufacturing process used to construct ICs and do not transmit light efficiently.

Hyperbolic metamaterials

"Hyperbolic metamaterials" could bring optical advances including powerful microscopes, quantum computers and high-performance solar cells. The graphic at left depicts a metamaterial's "hyperbolic dispersion" of light. At centre is a high-resolution transmission electron microscope image showing the interface of titanium nitride and aluminum scandium nitride in a "superlattice" that is promising for potential applications. At right are two images created using a method called fast Fourier transform to see individual layers in the material. (Purdue University image)

Now researchers have shown how to create "superlattice" crystals from layers of the metal titanium nitride and aluminum scandium nitride, a dielectric, or insulator. Superlattices are crystals that can be grown continuously by adding new layers, a requirement for practical application.

"This work is a very important step in terms of fundamental contributions in materials science and optics as well as paving the way to some interesting applications," Boltasseva said. "We believe this demonstration brings a paradigm shift to the field of metamaterials similar to developments that led to dramatic advances in silicon technology."

Researchers created the superlattices using a method called epitaxy, "growing" the layers inside a vacuum chamber with a technique known as magnetron sputtering. It is difficult to use the technique to create structures that have sharply defined, ultra-thin and ultra-smooth layers of two different materials.

"This is one of the first reports of a metal-dielectric epitaxial superlattice," said Purdue doctoral student Bivas Saha, co-lead author of the PNAS paper with Gururaj V. Naik, a former Purdue doctoral student and now a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University.

The list of possible applications for metamaterials includes a "planar hyperlens" that could make optical microscopes 10 times more powerful and able to see objects as small as DNA, advanced sensors, more efficient solar collectors and quantum computing.

"Plasmonic and metamaterial devices require good material building blocks, both plasmonic and dielectric, in order to be useful in any real-world application," Boltasseva said. "Here, we develop both plasmonic and dielectric materials that can be grown epitaxially into ultra-thin and ultra-smooth layers with sharp interfaces."

Metamaterials have engineered surfaces that contain features, patterns or elements, such as tiny antennas or alternating layers of nitrides that enable unprecedented control of light. Under development for about 15 years, the metamaterials owe their unusual potential to precision design on the scale of nanometres.

The PNAS paper was authored by Naik; Saha; doctoral students Jing Liu and Sammy M. Saber; Eric Stach, a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory; Joseph Irudayaraj, a professor in Purdue's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering; Timothy D. Sands, EVP for academic affairs and provost and Basil S. Turner Professor of Engineering in the Schools of Materials Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering; Vladimir M. Shalaev, scientific director of nanophotonics at Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Centre and a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Boltasseva.

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