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  • Light Drives Nanomachines
Nov 2008
NEW HAVEN, Conn., Nov. 26, 2008 -- By combining two emerging fields -- nanophotonics and nanomechanics -- researchers have shown that the force of light can be harnessed to drive machines at the nanoscale.

Nanophotonics and nanomechanics make possible the extreme miniaturization of optics and mechanics on a silicon chip. This new research, led by scientists at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, opens the door to a new class of semiconductor devices that are operated by the force of light. They envision a future where this process powers quantum information processing and sensing devices, as well as telecommunications that run at ultrahigh speed and consume little power. PhotonicCircuit.jpg
Photonic circuit in which optical force is harnessed to drive nanomechanics (inset). (Image: Tang/Yale)
While the energy of light has been harnessed and used in many ways, the "force" of light is different — it is a push or a pull action that causes something to move.

Science fiction writers have long envisioned sailing a spacecraft by the optical force of the sun's light, but that force is too weak to fill even the oversized sails that have been tried.

"While the force of light is far too weak for us to feel in everyday life, we have found that it can be harnessed and used at the nanoscale," said team leader Hong Tang, assistant professor at Yale. "Our work demonstrates the advantage of using nano-objects as 'targets' for the force of light -- using devices that are a billion-billion times smaller than a space sail, and that match the size of today's typical transistors."

Until now light has only been used to maneuver single tiny objects with a focused laser beam, a technique called optical tweezers. "Instead of moving particles with light, now we integrate everything on a chip and move a semiconductor device," said postdoctoral scientist Mo Li.

"When researchers talk about optical forces, they are generally referring to the radiation pressure light applies in the direction of the flow of light," said Tang. "The new force we have investigated actually kicks out to the side of that light flow."

While this new optical force was predicted by several theories, the proof required state-of-the-art nanophotonics to confine light with ultrahigh intensity within nanoscale photonic wires. The researchers showed that when the concentrated light was guided through a nanoscale mechanical device, significant light force could be generated -- enough, in fact, to operate nanoscale machinery on a silicon chip.

The light force was routed in much the same way electronic wires are laid out on today's large scale integrated circuits. Because light intensity is much higher when it is guided at the nanoscale, they were able to exploit the force. "We calculate that the illumination we harness is a million times stronger than direct sunlight," said Wolfram Pernice, a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow with Tang.

"We create hundreds of devices on a single chip, and all of them work," said Tang, who attributes this success to a great optical I/O device design provided by their collaborators at the University of Washington.

It took more than 60 years to progress from the first transistors to the speed and power of today's computers. Creating devices that run solely on light rather than electronics will now begin a similar process of development, according to the researchers.

"While this development has brought us a new device concept and a giant step forward in speed, the next developments will be in improving the mechanical aspects of the system. But the photon force is with us," said Tang.

Tang's team at Yale also included graduate student Chi Xiong. Collaborators at the University of Washington were Thomas Baehr-Jones and Michael Hochberg. Funding for the project was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellowship program.

The work appears in the Nov. 27 issue of Nature; Li is lead author.

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Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
With respect to a lens, the reciprocal of its focal length. The term power, as applied to a telescope or microscope, often is used as an abbreviation for magnifying power.
Smallest amount into which the energy of a wave can be divided. The quantum is proportional to the frequency of the wave. See photon.
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