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  • ‘Microlens’ Enhances IR Satellite Imaging
May 2010
Troy, N.Y., May 25, 2010 — Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new nanotechnology-based 'microlens' that uses gold to boost the strength of infrared imaging and could lead to a new generation of ultrapowerful satellite cameras and night-vision devices.

By leveraging the unique properties of nanoscale gold to "squeeze" light into tiny holes in the surface of the device, the researchers have doubled the detectivity of a quantum dot-based infrared detector. The researchers expect that this new technology, with some refinement, should be able to enhance detectivity by up to 20 times.

This study is the first in more than a decade to demonstrate success in enhancing the signal of an infrared detector without also increasing the noise, said project leader Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer and a member of the university's Future Chips Constellation and Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center.

"Infrared detection is a big priority right now, as more effective infrared satellite imaging technology holds the potential to benefit everything from homeland security to monitoring climate change and deforestation," said Lin, who in 2008 created the world's darkest material as well as a coating for solar panels that absorbs 99.9 percent of light from nearly all angles.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Shawn-Yu Lin has developed a new nanotechnology-based "microlens" that uses gold to boost the strength of infrared imaging and could lead to a new generation of ultrapowerful satellite cameras and night-vision devices. The device, pictured, leverages the unique properties of nanoscale gold to "squeeze" light into the tiny holes in its surface. (Image: Rensselaer/Lin)

"We have shown that you can use nanoscopic gold to focus the light entering an infrared detector, which in turn enhances the absorption of photons and also enhances the capacity of the embedded quantum dots to convert those photons into electrons. This kind of behavior has never been seen before," he said.

The detectivity of an infrared photodetector is determined by how much signal it receives, divided by the noise it receives. The current state of the art in photodetectors is based on mercury-cadmium-telluride (MCT) technology, which has a strong signal but faces several challenges, including long exposure times for low-signal imaging. Lin said his new study creates a road map for developing quantum dot infrared photodetectors (QDIP) that can outperform MCTs and bridge the innovation gap that has stunted the progress of infrared technology over the past decade.

The surface plasmon QDIPs are long, flat structures with countless tiny holes on the surface. The solid surface of the structure that Lin built is covered with about 50 nanometers – or 50 billionths of a meter – of gold. Each hole is about 1.6 microns – or 1.6 millionths of a meter – in diameter and 1 micron deep. The holes are filled with quantum dots, which are nanoscale crystals with unique optical and semiconductor properties.

The interesting properties of the QDIP's gold surface help to focus incoming light directly into the microscale holes and effectively concentrate that light in the pool of quantum dots. This concentration strengthens the interaction between the trapped light and the quantum dots and in turn strengthens the dots' ability to convert those photons into electrons. The end result is that Lin's device creates an electric field up to 400 percent stronger than the raw energy that enters the QDIP.

The effect is similar to what would result from covering each tiny hole on the QDIP with a lens, but without the extra weight, and minus the hassle and cost of installing and calibrating millions of microscopic lenses, Lin said.

Lin's team also demonstrated that the nanoscale layer of gold on the QDIP does not add any noise or negatively impact the device's response time. Lin plans to continue honing this new technology and use gold to boost the QDIP's detectivity, by both widening the diameter of the surface holes and more effectively placing the quantum dots.

"I think that, within a few years, we will be able to create a gold-based QDIP device with a 20-fold enhancement in signal from what we have today," Lin said. "It's a very reasonable goal and could open up a whole new range of applications from better night-vision goggles for soldiers to more accurate medical imaging devices."

Results of the study, titled "A Surface Plasmon Enhanced Infrared Photodetector Based on InAs Quantum Dots," were published online recently by the journal Nano Letters. The US Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded this study.

Co-authors of the paper are James Bur, Rensselaer senior research scientist; graduate student Chun-Chieh Chang; Yong-Sung Kim, research associate; Yagya D. Sharma, Rajeev V. Shenoi, and Sanjay Krishna of the Center for High Technology Materials at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; and Danhong Huang of the Space Vehicles Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base.

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