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'Crowd Behavior' Seen in Semiconductor Electronics

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BOULDER, Colo., July 11, 2007 -- Ultrafast lasers have revealed a subtle, previously unseen type of "collective electronic behavior" among semiconductors, research that may help improve the design of optoelectronic devices.

The work at JILA, a joint venture of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, is described in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Design of optoelectronic devices, like the semiconductor diode lasers used in telecommunications, currently involves a lot of trial and error. A designer trying to use basic theory to calculate the characteristics of a new diode laser will be off by a significant amount because of subtle interactions in the semiconductor that could not be detected until recently.

To shed light on these interactions, the JILA team used a highly sensitive and increasingly popular method of manipulating laser light energy and phase (the point in time when a single light wave begins) to reveal the collective behavior of electronic particles that shift the phase of any deflected light. Their work is an adaptation of a technique that was developed years ago by other researchers to probe correlations between spinning nuclei as an indicator of molecular structure (and led to a Nobel prize).


1: Experimental data

2: New theory

3: Old theory

Physicists at JILA have confirmed subtle "collective behavior" among electronic structures in semiconductors, research that may help improve the design of optoelectronic devices. In the first image above (1, showing new experimental data), matching large peaks in the foreground, showing energy intensity ranging from low in blue to high in red, indicate that pairs of large electronic particles called excitons are oscillating in concert as they absorb ultrafast laser light and emit energy at various frequencies. The data match new theoretical models accounting for all electronic properties of semiconductors (image 2) much better than (image 3) older theoretical models. (Images courtesy JILA and the University of Marburg)
In the latest JILA experiments, a sample made of thin layers of gallium arsenide was hit with a continuous series of three near-infrared laser pulses lasting just 100 femtoseconds each. Trillions of electronic structures called excitons were formed. Excitons are large, fluffy particles consisting of excited electrons and the "holes" they left behind as they jumped to higher-energy vibration patterns.

By tinkering with the laser tuning -- the frequency and orientation of the electric field -- and analyzing how the semiconductor altered the intensity and phase of the light, the researchers identified a subtle coupling between pairs of excitons with different energy levels, or electron masses.

The experimental data matched advanced theoretical calculations of the electronic properties of semiconductors, confirming the importance of the collective exciton behavior -- and dramatically demonstrated the superiority of those calculations over simpler models of semiconductor behavior.

The work may help researchers better predict optoelectronic device characteristics, not only the magnitude of the emissions signals but also the phase, which is especially significant in optics.

Authors of the paper include a NIST collaborator and theorists from Philipps University in Marburg, Germany. The research is supported in part by the US Department of Energy.

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Jul 2007
A two-electrode device with an anode and a cathode that passes current in only one direction. It may be designed as an electron tube or as a semiconductor device.
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...
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