The Promise of Plasmonics; The Rise of Nanotech; Special Editions; by Harry A. Atwater; 8 Page(s)
Light is a wonderful medium for carrying information. Optical fibers now span the globe, guiding light signals that convey voluminous streams of voice communications and vast amounts of data. This gargantuan capacity has led some researchers to prophesy that photonic devices--which channel and manipulate visible light and other electromagnetic waves--could someday replace electronic circuits in microprocessors and other computer chips. Unfortunately, the size and performance of photonic devices are constrained by the diffraction limit; because of interference between closely spaced light waves, the width of an optical fiber carrying them must be at least half the light's wavelength inside the material. For chip-based optical signals, which will most likely employ near-infrared wavelengths of about 1,500 nanometers (billionths of a meter), the minimum width is much larger than the smallest electronic devices currently in use; some transistors in silicon integrated circuits, for instance, have features smaller than 100 nanometers.
Recently, however, scientists have been working on a new technique for transmitting optical signals through minuscule nanoscale structures. In the 1980s researchers experimentally confirmed that directing light waves at the interface between a metal and a dielectric (a nonconductive material such as air or glass) can, under the right circumstances, induce a resonant interaction between the waves and the mobile electrons at the surface of the metal. (In a conductive metal, the electrons are not strongly attached to individual atoms or molecules.) In other words, the oscillations of electrons at the surface match those of the electromagnetic field outside the metal. The result is the generation of surface plasmons--density waves of electrons that propagate along the interface like the ripples that spread across the surface of a pond after you throw a stone into the water.