Category Archives: nanophotonics

Turning sunlight into hydrogen (a Korean project)

A Feb. 17, 2016 news item on Nanowerk describes a new technique for solar water-splitting (turning sunlight into hydrogen),

A team of Korean researchers, affiliated with UNIST [Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology] has recently pioneered in developing a new type of multilayered (Au NPs/TiO2/Au) photoelectrode that boosts the ability of solar water-splitting to produce hydrogen. According to the research team, this special photoelectrode, inspired by the way plants convert sunlight into energy is capable of absorbing visible light from the sun, and then using it to split water molecules (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen.

A Feb. 1, 2016 UNIST news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

This multilayered photoelectrode takes the form of two-dimensional hybrid metal-dielectric structure, which mainly consists of three layers of gold (Au) film, ultrathin TiO2 layer (20 nm), and gold nanoparticles (Au NPs). In a study, reported in the January 21, 2016 issue of Nano Energy, the team reported that this promising photoelectrode shows high light absorption of about 90% in the visible range 380–700 nm, as well as significant enhancement in photo-catalytic applications.

The researchers have made an image illustrating their work available,

Two-dimensional metastructured film with Titanium Oxide is fabricated as a photo-catalytic photoanode with exceptional visible light absorption. Courtesy: UNIST

Two-dimensional metastructured film with Titanium Oxide is fabricated as a photo-catalytic photoanode with exceptional visible light absorption. Courtesy: UNIST

Back to the news release,

Many structural designs, such as hierarchical and branched assemblies of nanoscale materials have been suggested to increase the UV-visible absorption and to enhance water-splitting efficiency. However, through incorporation of plasmonic metal nanoparticles (i.e. Au) to TiO2 structures, their photoelectrodes have shown to enhance the photoactivity in the entire UV-visible region of solar spectrum when compared with the existing ones, the team reports.

Prof. Jeong Min Baik of UNIST (School of Materials Science and Engineering) states, “Several attemps have been made to use UV-based photoelectrodes for hydrogen production, but this is the first time to use the metal-dielectric hybrid-structured film with TiO2 for oxygen production.” Moreover, according to Prof. Baik, this special type of photoelectrode uses approximately 95% of the visible spectrum of sunlight, which makes up a substantial portion (40%) of full sunlight. He adds, “The developed technology is expected to improve hydrogen production efficiency.”

Prof. Heon Lee (Korean University) states, “This metal-dielectric hybrid-structured film is expected to further reduce the overall cost of producing hydrogen, as it doesn’t require complex operation processes.” He continues by saying, “Using nanoimprint lithography, mass production of hydrogen will be soon possible.”

Prof. Baik adds, “This simple system may serve as an efficient platform for solar energy conversion, utilizing the whole UV-visible range of solar spectrum based on two-dimensional plasmonic photoelectrodes.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Two-dimensional metal-dielectric hybrid-structured film with titanium oxide for enhanced visible light absorption and photo-catalytic application by Joonmo Park, Hee Jun Kim, SangHyeon Nam, Hyowook Kim, Hak-Jong Choi, Youn Jeong Jang, Jae Sung Lee, Jonghwa Shin, Heon Lee, Jeong Min Baik. Nano Energy Volume 21, March 2016, Pages 115–122 doi:10.1016/j.nanoen.2016.01.004

This paper is behind a paywall.

Getting back to incandescent light (recycling the military way)

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) issued two news releases about this research into reclaiming incandescent light or as they call it “recycling light.” First off, there’s the Jan. 11, 2016 MIT Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies news release by Paola Rebusco on EurekAlert,

Humanity started recycling relatively early in its evolution: there are proofs that trash recycling was taking place as early as in the 500 BC. What about light recycling? Consider light bulbs: more than one hundred and thirty years ago Thomas Edison patented the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb, so that “none but the extravagant” would ever “burn tallow candles”, paving the way for more than a century of incandescent lighting. In fact, emergence of electric lighting was the main motivating factor for deployment of electricity into every home in the world. The incandescent bulb is an example of a high temperature thermal emitter. It is very useful, but only a small fraction of the emitted light (and therefore energy) is used: most of the light is emitted in the infrared, invisible to the human eye, and in this context wasted.

Now, in a study published in Nature Nanotechnology on January 11th 2016 (online), a team of MIT researchers describes another way to recycle light emitted at unwanted infrared wavelengths while optimizing the emission at useful visible wavelengths. …

“For a thermal emitter at moderate temperatures one usually nano-patterns its surface to alter the emission,” says Ilic [postdoc Ognjen Ilic], the lead author of the study. “At high temperatures” – a light bulb filament reaches 3000K! – “such nanostructures deteriorate and it is impossible to alter the emission spectrum by having a nanostructure directly on the surface of the emitter.” The team solved the problem by surrounding the hot object with special nanophotonic structures that spectrally filter the emitted light, meaning that they let the light reflect or pass through based on its color (i.e. its wavelength). Because the filters are not in direct physical contact with the emitter, temperatures can be very high.

To showcase this idea, the team picked one of the highest temperature thermal emitters available – an incandescent light bulb. The authors designed nanofilters to recycle the infrared light, while allowing the visible light to go through. “The key advance was to design a photonic structure that transmits visible light and reflects infrared light for a very wide range of angles,” explains Ilic. “Conventional photonic filters usually operate for a single incidence angle. The challenge for us was to extend the desired optical properties across all directions,” a feat the authors achieved using special numerical optimization techniques.

However, for this scheme to work, the authors had to redesign the incandescent filament from scratch. “In a regular light bulb, the filament is a long and curly piece of tungsten wire. Here, the filament is laser-machined out of a flat sheet of tungsten: it is completely planar,” says Bermel [professor Peter Bermel now at Purdue University]. A planar filament has a large area, and is therefore very efficient in re-absorbing the light that was reflected by the filter. In describing how the new device differs from previously suggested concepts, Soljačić [professor Marin Soljačić], the project lead, emphasizes that “it is the combination of the exceptional properties of the filter and the shape of the filament that enabled substantial recycling of unwanted radiated light.”

In the new-concept light bulb prototype built by the authors, the efficiency approaches some fluorescent and LED bulbs. Nonetheless, the theoretical model predicts plenty of room for improvement. “This experimental device is a proof-of-concept, at the low end of performance that could be ultimately achieved by this approach,” argues Celanovic [principal research scientist Ivan Celanovic]. There are other advantages of this approach: “An important feature is that our demonstrated device achieves near-ideal rendering of colors,” notes Ilic, referring to the requirement of light sources to faithfully reproduce surrounding colors. That is precisely the reason why incandescent lights remained dominant for so long: their warm light has remained preferable to drab fluorescent lighting for decades.

Some practical questions need to be addressed before this technology can be widely adopted. “We will work closely with our mechanical engineering colleagues at MIT to try to tackle the issues of thermal stability and long-lifetime,” says Soljačić. The authors are particularly excited about the potential for producing these devices cheaply. “The materials we need are abundant and inexpensive,” Joannopoulos [professor John Joannopoulos] notes, “and the filters themselves–consisting of stacks of commonly deposited materials–are amenable to large-scale deposition.”

Chen [professor Gang Chen] comments further: “The lighting potential of this technology is exciting, but the same approach could also be used to improve the performance of energy conversion schemes such as thermo-photovoltaics.” In a thermo-photovoltaic device, external heat causes the material to glow, emitting light that is converted into an electric current by an absorbing photovoltaic element.

The last point captures the main motivation behind the work. “Light radiated from a hot object can be quite useful, whether that object is an incandescent filament or the Sun,” Ilic says. At its core, this work is about recycling thermal light for a specific application; “a 3000-degree filament is one of the hottest and the most challenging sources to work with,” Ilic continues. “It’s also what makes it a crucial test of our approach.”

There are a few more details in the 2nd Jan. 11, 2016 MIT news release on EurekAlert,

Light recycling

The key is to create a two-stage process, the researchers report. The first stage involves a conventional heated metal filament, with all its attendant losses. But instead of allowing the waste heat to dissipate in the form of infrared radiation, secondary structures surrounding the filament capture this radiation and reflect it back to the filament to be re-absorbed and re-emitted as visible light. These structures, a form of photonic crystal, are made of Earth-abundant elements and can be made using conventional material-deposition technology.

That second step makes a dramatic difference in how efficiently the system converts light into electricity. The efficiency of conventional incandescent lights is between 2 and 3 percent, while that of fluorescents (including CFLs) is currently between 7 and 13 percent, and that of LEDs between 5 and 13 percent. In contrast, the new two-stage incandescents could reach efficiencies as high as 40 percent, the team says.

The first proof-of-concept units made by the team do not yet reach that level, achieving about 6.6 percent efficiency. But even that preliminary result matches the efficiency of some of today’s CFLs and LEDs, they point out. And it is already a threefold improvement over the efficiency of today’s incandescents.

The team refers to their approach as “light recycling,” says Ilic, since their material takes in the unwanted, useless wavelengths of energy and converts them into the visible light wavelengths that are desired. “It recycles the energy that would otherwise be wasted,” says Soljačić.

Bulbs and beyond

One key to their success was designing a photonic crystal that works for a very wide range of wavelengths and angles. The photonic crystal itself is made as a stack of thin layers, deposited on a substrate. “When you put together layers, with the right thicknesses and sequence,” Ilic explains, you can get very efficient tuning of how the material interacts with light. In their system, the desired visible wavelengths pass right through the material and on out of the bulb, but the infrared wavelengths get reflected as if from a mirror. They then travel back to the filament, adding more heat that then gets converted to more light. Since only the visible ever gets out, the heat just keeps bouncing back in toward the filament until it finally ends up as visible light.

I appreciate both MIT news release writers for “Thomas Edison patented the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb” (Rebusco) and the unidentified writer of the 2nd MIT news release for this, from the news release, “Incandescent bulbs, commercially developed by Thomas Edison (and still used by cartoonists as the symbol of inventive insight) … .” Edison did not invent the light bulb. BTW, the emphases are mine.

For interested parties, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tailoring high-temperature radiation and the resurrection of the incandescent source by Ognjen Ilic, Peter Bermel, Gang Chen, John D. Joannopoulos, Ivan Celanovic, & Marin Soljačić. Nature Nanotechnology  (2016) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.309 Published online 11 January 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

New tool for mapping neuronal connections in the brain

This work comes from the US Naval Research Laboratory according to a Nov. 17, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Research biologists, chemists and theoreticians at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), are on pace to develop the next generation of functional materials that could enable the mapping of the complex neural connections in the brain (“Electric Field Modulation of Semiconductor Quantum Dot Photoluminescence: Insights Into the Design of Robust Voltage-Sensitive Cellular Imaging Probes”). The ultimate goal is to better understand how the billions of neurons in the brain communicate with one another during normal brain function, or dysfunction, as result of injury or disease.

“There is tremendous interest in mapping all the neuron connections in the human brain,” said Dr. James Delehanty, research biologist, Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. “To do that we need new tools or materials that allow us to see how large groups of neurons communicate with one another while, at the same time, being able to focus in on a single neuron’s activity. Our most recent work potentially opens the integration of voltage-sensitive nanomaterials into live cells and tissues in a variety of configurations to achieve real-time imaging capabilities not currently possible.”

A Nov. 17, 2015 US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more details,

The basis of neuron communication is the time-dependent modulation of the strength of the electric field that is maintained across the cell’s plasma membrane. This is called an action potential. Among the nanomaterials under consideration for application in neuronal action potential imaging are quantum dots (QDs) — crystalline semiconductor nanomaterials possessing a number of advantageous photophysical attributes.

“QDs are very bright and photostable so you can look at them for long times and they allow for tissue imaging configurations that are not compatible with current materials, for example, organic dyes,” Delehanty added. “Equally important, we’ve shown here that QD brightness tracks, with very high fidelity, the time-resolved electric field strength changes that occur when a neuron undergoes an action potential. Their nanoscale size make them ideal nanoscale voltage sensing materials for interfacing with neurons and other electrically active cells for voltage sensing.”

QDs are small, bright, photo-stable materials that possess nanosecond fluorescence lifetimes. They can be localized within or on cellular plasma membranes and have low cytotoxicity when interfaced with experimental brain systems. Additionally, QDs possess two-photon action cross-section orders of magnitude larger than organic dyes or fluorescent proteins. Two-photon imaging is the preferred imaging modality for imaging deep (millimeters) into the brain and other tissues of the body.

In their most recent work, the NRL researchers showed that an electric field typical of those found in neuronal membranes results in suppression of the QD photoluminescence (PL) and, for the first time, that QD PL is able to track the action potential profile of a firing neuron with millisecond time resolution. This effect is shown to be connected with electric-field-driven QD ionization and consequent QD PL quenching, in contradiction with conventional wisdom that suppression of the QD PL is attributable to the quantum confined Stark effect — the shifting and splitting of spectral lines of atoms and molecules due to presence of an external electric field.

“The inherent superior photostability properties of QDs coupled with their voltage sensitivity could prove advantageous to long-term imaging capabilities that are not currently attainable using traditional organic voltage sensitive dyes,” Delehanty said. “We anticipate that continued research will facilitate the rational design and synthesis of voltage-sensitive QD probes that can be integrated in a variety of imaging configurations for the robust functional imaging and sensing of electrically active cells.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Electric Field Modulation of Semiconductor Quantum Dot Photoluminescence: Insights Into the Design of Robust Voltage-Sensitive Cellular Imaging Probes by Clare E. Rowland, Kimihiro Susumu, Michael H. Stewart, Eunkeu Oh, Antti J. Mäkinen, Thomas J. O’Shaughnessy, Gary Kushto, Mason A. Wolak, Jeffrey S. Erickson, Alexander L. Efros, Alan L. Huston, and James B. Delehanty. Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (10), pp 6848–6854 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b02725 Publication Date (Web): September 28, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A new nanoparticle—layered* like an onion

The new nanoparticle comes courtesy of an international collaboration (US, China, Sweden, and Russia. A Nov. 10, 2015 University of Buffalo news release (also on EurekAlert) by Charlotte Hu describes the particle and its properties,

A new, onion-like nanoparticle could open new frontiers in biomaging, solar energy harvesting and light-based security techniques.

The particle’s innovation lies in its layers: a coating of organic dye, a neodymium-containing shell, and a core that incorporates ytterbium and thulium. Together, these strata convert invisible near-infrared light to higher energy blue and UV light with record-high efficiency, a trick that could improve the performance of technologies ranging from deep-tissue imaging and light-induced therapy to security inks used for printing money.

Here’s an artist’s representation of the new nanoparticle,

An artist’s rendering shows the layers of a new, onion-like nanoparticle whose specially crafted layers enable it to efficiently convert invisible near-infrared light to higher energy blue and UV light. Credit: Kaiheng Wei Courtesy: University of Buffalo

An artist’s rendering shows the layers of a new, onion-like nanoparticle whose specially crafted layers enable it to efficiently convert invisible near-infrared light to higher energy blue and UV light. Credit: Kaiheng Wei Courtesy: University of Buffalo

The news release goes on to describe technology in more detail,

When it comes to bioimaging, near-infrared light could be used to activate the light-emitting nanoparticles deep inside the body, providing high-contrast images of areas of interest. In the realm of security, nanoparticle-infused inks could be incorporated into currency designs; such ink would be invisible to the naked eye, but glow blue when hit by a low-energy laser pulse — a trait very difficult for counterfeiters to reproduce.

“It opens up multiple possibilities for the future,” says Tymish Ohulchanskyy, deputy director of photomedicine and research associate professor at the Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics (ILPB) at the University at Buffalo.

“By creating special layers that help transfer energy efficiently from the surface of the particle to the core, which emits blue and UV light, our design helps overcome some of the long-standing obstacles that previous technologies faced,” says Guanying Chen, professor of chemistry at Harbin Institute of Technology [China] and ILPB research associate professor.

“Our particle is about 100 times more efficient at ‘upconverting’ light than similar nanoparticles created in the past, making it much more practical,” says Jossana Damasco, a UB chemistry PhD student who played a key role in the project.

The research was published online in Nano Letters on Oct. 21 and led by the Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics at UB, and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, with contributions from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden; Tomsk State University in Russia; and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

The study’s senior author was Paras Prasad, ILPB executive director and SUNY [State University of New York] Distinguished Professor in chemistry, physics, medicine and electrical engineering at UB.

Peeling back the layers

Converting low-energy light to light of higher energies isn’t easy to do. The process involves capturing two or more tiny packets of light called “photons” from a low-energy light source, and combining their energy to form a single, higher-energy photon.

The onionesque nanoparticle performs this task beautifully. Each of its three layers fulfills a unique function:

  • The outermost layer is a coating of organic dye. This dye is adept at absorbing photons from low-energy near-infrared light sources. It acts as an “antenna” for the nanoparticle, harvesting light and transferring energy inside, Ohulchanskyy says.
  • The next layer is a neodymium-containing shell. This layer acts as a bridge, transferring energy from the dye to the particle’s light-emitting core.
  • Inside the light-emitting core, ytterbium and thulium ions work in concert. The ytterbium ions draw energy into the core and pass the energy on to the thulium ions, which have special properties that enable them to absorb the energy of three, four or five photons at once, and then emit a single higher-energy photon of blue and UV light.

So why not just use the core? Why add the dye and neodymium layer at all?

As Ohulchanskyy and Chen explain, the core itself is inefficient in absorbing photons from the outside world. That’s where the dye comes in.

Once you add the dye, the neodymium-containing layer is necessary for transferring energy efficiently from dye to core. Ohulchanskyy uses the analogy of a staircase to explain why this is: When molecules or ions in a material absorb a photon, they enter an “excited” state from which they can transfer energy to other molecules or ions. The most efficient transfer occurs between molecules or ions whose excited states require a similar amount of energy to obtain, but the dye and ytterbium ions have excited states with very different energies. So the team added neodymium — whose excited state is in between that of the dye and thulium’s — to act as a bridge between the two, creating a “staircase” for the energy to travel down to reach emitting thulium ions.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Energy-Cascaded Upconversion in an Organic Dye-Sensitized Core/Shell Fluoride Nanocrystal by Guanying Chen, Jossana Damasco, Hailong Qiu, Wei Shao, Tymish Y. Ohulchanskyy, Rashid R. Valiev, Xiang Wu, Gang Han, Yan Wang, Chunhui Yang, Hans Ågren, and Paras N. Prasad. Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (11), pp 7400–7407 DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b02830 Publication Date (Web): October 21, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Finally, there is a Nov. 11, 2015 article about the research by Jake Wilkinson for Azonano. He provides additional details such as this measurement,

Measuring approximately 50nm in diameter, the new nanoparticle features three differently designed layers. …

*’ayered’ changed to ‘layered’ on Nov. 11, 2015.

Changing the vibration of gold nanodisks (acoustic tuning) with light

A May 7, 2015 news item on phys.org describes research that could have a major impact on photonics applications,

In a study that could open doors for new applications of photonics from molecular sensing to wireless communications, Rice University [Texas, US] scientists have discovered a new method to tune the light-induced vibrations of nanoparticles through slight alterations to the surface to which the particles are attached.

n a study published online this week in Nature Communications, researchers at Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) used ultrafast laser pulses to induce the atoms in gold nanodisks to vibrate. These vibrational patterns, known as acoustic phonons, have a characteristic frequency that relates directly to the size of the nanoparticle. The researchers found they could fine-tune the acoustic response of the particle by varying the thickness of the material to which the nanodisks were attached.

A May 7, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Our results point toward a straightforward method for tuning the acoustic phonon frequency of a nanostructure in the gigahertz range by controlling the thickness of its adhesion layer,” said lead researcher Stephan Link, associate professor of chemistry and in electrical and computer engineering.

Light has no mass, but each photon that strikes an object imparts a miniscule amount of mechanical motion, thanks to a phenomenon known as radiation pressure. A branch of physics known as optomechanics has developed over the past decade to study and exploit radiation pressure for applications like gravity wave detection and low-temperature generation.

Link and colleagues at LANP specialize in another branch of science called plasmonics that is devoted to the study of light-activated nanostructures. Plasmons are waves of electrons that flow like a fluid across a metallic surface.

When a light pulse of a specific wavelength strikes a metal particle like the puck-shaped gold nanodisks in the LANP experiments, the light energy is converted into plasmons. These plasmons slosh across the surface of the particle with a characteristic frequency, in much the same way that each phonon has a characteristic vibrational frequency.

The study’s first author, Wei-Shun Chang, a postdoctoral researcher in Link’s lab, and graduate students Fangfang Wen and Man-Nung Su conducted a series of experiments that revealed a direct connection between the resonant frequencies of the plasmons and phonons in nanodisks that had been exposed to laser pulses.

“Heating nanostructures with a short light pulse launches acoustic phonons that depend sensitively on the structure’s dimensions,” Link said. “Thanks to advanced lithographic techniques, experimentalists can engineer plasmonic nanostructures with great precision. Based on our results, it appears that plasmonic nanostructures may present an interesting alternative to conventional optomechanical oscillators.”

Chang said plasmonics experts often rely on substrates when using electron-beam lithography to pattern plasmonic structures. For example, gold nanodisks like those used in the experiments will not stick to glass slides. But if a thin substrate of titanium or chromium is added to the glass, the disks will adhere and stay where they are placed.

“The substrate layer affects the mechanical properties of the nanostructure, but many questions remain as to how it does this,” Chang said. “Our experiments explored how the thickness of the substrate impacted properties like adhesion and phononic frequency.”

Link said the research was a collaborative effort involving research groups at Rice and the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia.

“Wei-Shun and Man-Nung from my lab did the ultrafast spectroscopy,” Link said. “Fangfang, who is in Naomi Halas’ group here at Rice, made the nanodisks. John Sader at the University of Melbourne, and his postdoc Debadi Chakraborty calculated the acoustic modes, and Yue Zhang, a Rice graduate student from Peter Nordlander’s group at Rice simulated the optical/plasmonic properties. Bo Shuang of the Landes’ research group at Rice contributed to the analysis of the experimental data.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Tuning the acoustic frequency of a gold nanodisk through its adhesion layer by Wei-Shun Chang, Fangfang Wen, Debadi Chakraborty, Man-Nung Su, Yue Zhang, Bo Shuang, Peter Nordlander, John E. Sader, Naomi J. Halas, & Stephan Link. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 7022 doi:10.1038/ncomms8022 Published 05 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available vie ReadCube Access.

Brain-like computing with optical fibres

Researchers from Singapore and the United Kingdom are exploring an optical fibre approach to brain-like computing (aka neuromorphic computing) as opposed to approaches featuring a memristor or other devices such as a nanoionic device that I’ve written about previously. A March 10, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes this new approach,

Computers that function like the human brain could soon become a reality thanks to new research using optical fibres made of speciality glass.

Researchers from the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton, UK, and Centre for Disruptive Photonic Technologies (CDPT) at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, have demonstrated how neural networks and synapses in the brain can be reproduced, with optical pulses as information carriers, using special fibres made from glasses that are sensitive to light, known as chalcogenides.

“The project, funded under Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Advanced Optics in Engineering programme, was conducted within The Photonics Institute (TPI), a recently established dual institute between NTU and the ORC.”

A March 10, 2015 University of Southampton press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the nature of the problem that the scientists are trying address (Note: A link has been removed),

Co-author Professor Dan Hewak from the ORC, says: “Since the dawn of the computer age, scientists have sought ways to mimic the behaviour of the human brain, replacing neurons and our nervous system with electronic switches and memory. Now instead of electrons, light and optical fibres also show promise in achieving a brain-like computer. The cognitive functionality of central neurons underlies the adaptable nature and information processing capability of our brains.”

In the last decade, neuromorphic computing research has advanced software and electronic hardware that mimic brain functions and signal protocols, aimed at improving the efficiency and adaptability of conventional computers.

However, compared to our biological systems, today’s computers are more than a million times less efficient. Simulating five seconds of brain activity takes 500 seconds and needs 1.4 MW of power, compared to the small number of calories burned by the human brain.

Using conventional fibre drawing techniques, microfibers can be produced from chalcogenide (glasses based on sulphur) that possess a variety of broadband photoinduced effects, which allow the fibres to be switched on and off. This optical switching or light switching light, can be exploited for a variety of next generation computing applications capable of processing vast amounts of data in a much more energy-efficient manner.

Co-author Dr Behrad Gholipour explains: “By going back to biological systems for inspiration and using mass-manufacturable photonic platforms, such as chalcogenide fibres, we can start to improve the speed and efficiency of conventional computing architectures, while introducing adaptability and learning into the next generation of devices.”

By exploiting the material properties of the chalcogenides fibres, the team led by Professor Cesare Soci at NTU have demonstrated a range of optical equivalents of brain functions. These include holding a neural resting state and simulating the changes in electrical activity in a nerve cell as it is stimulated. In the proposed optical version of this brain function, the changing properties of the glass act as the varying electrical activity in a nerve cell, and light provides the stimulus to change these properties. This enables switching of a light signal, which is the equivalent to a nerve cell firing.

The research paves the way for scalable brain-like computing systems that enable ‘photonic neurons’ with ultrafast signal transmission speeds, higher bandwidth and lower power consumption than their biological and electronic counterparts.

Professor Cesare Soci said: “This work implies that ‘cognitive’ photonic devices and networks can be effectively used to develop non-Boolean computing and decision-making paradigms that mimic brain functionalities and signal protocols, to overcome bandwidth and power bottlenecks of traditional data processing.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Amorphous Metal-Sulphide Microfibers Enable Photonic Synapses for Brain-Like Computing by Behrad Gholipour, Paul Bastock, Chris Craig, Khouler Khan, Dan Hewak. and Cesare Soci. Advanced Optical Materials DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400472
Article first published online: 15 JAN 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in memristors and nanoionic devices, here are a few posts (from this blog) to get you started:

Memristors, memcapacitors, and meminductors for faster computers (June 30, 2014)

This second one offers more details and links to previous pieces,

Memristor, memristor! What is happening? News from the University of Michigan and HP Laboratories (June 25, 2014)

This post is more of a survey including memristors, nanoionic devices, ‘brain jelly, and more,

Brain-on-a-chip 2014 survey/overview (April 7, 2014)

One comment, this brain-on-a-chip is not to be confused with ‘organs-on-a-chip’ projects which are attempting to simulate human organs (Including the brain) so chemicals and drugs can be tested.

Blue-striped limpets and their nanophotonic features

This is a structural colour story limpets and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. For the impatient here’s a video summary of the work courtesy of the researchers,

A Feb. 26, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily reiterates the details for those who like to read their science,

The blue-rayed limpet is a tiny mollusk that lives in kelp beds along the coasts of Norway, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the Canary Islands. These diminutive organisms — as small as a fingernail — might escape notice entirely, if not for a very conspicuous feature: bright blue dotted lines that run in parallel along the length of their translucent shells. Depending on the angle at which light hits, a limpet’s shell can flash brilliantly even in murky water.

Now scientists at MIT and Harvard University have identified two optical structures within the limpet’s shell that give its blue-striped appearance. The structures are configured to reflect blue light while absorbing all other wavelengths of incoming light. The researchers speculate that such patterning may have evolved to protect the limpet, as the blue lines resemble the color displays on the shells of more poisonous soft-bodied snails.

A Feb. 26, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this discovery is special,

The findings, reported this week in the journal Nature Communications, represent the first evidence of an organism using mineralized structural components to produce optical displays. While birds, butterflies, and beetles can display brilliant blues, among other colors, they do so with organic structures, such as feathers, scales, and plates. The limpet, by contrast, produces its blue stripes through an interplay of inorganic, mineral structures, arranged in such a way as to reflect only blue light.

The researchers say such natural optical structures may serve as a design guide for engineering color-selective, controllable, transparent displays that require no internal light source and could be incorporated into windows and glasses.

“Let’s imagine a window surface in a car where you obviously want to see the outside world as you’re driving, but where you also can overlay the real world with an augmented reality that could involve projecting a map and other useful information on the world that exists on the other side of the windshield,” says co-author Mathias Kolle, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We believe that the limpet’s approach to displaying color patterns in a translucent shell could serve as a starting point for developing such displays.”

The news release then reveals how this research came about,

Kolle, whose research is focused on engineering bioinspired, optical materials — including color-changing, deformable fibers — started looking into the optical features of the limpet when his brother Stefan, a marine biologist now working at Harvard, brought Kolle a few of the organisms in a small container. Stefan Kolle was struck by the mollusk’s brilliant patterning, and recruited his brother, along with several others, to delve deeper into the limpet shell’s optical properties.

To do this, the team of researchers — which also included Ling Li and Christine Ortiz at MIT and James Weaver and Joanna Aizenberg at Harvard — performed a detailed structural and optical analysis of the limpet shells. They observed that the blue stripes first appear in juveniles, resembling dashed lines. The stripes grow more continuous as a limpet matures, and their shade varies from individual to individual, ranging from deep blue to turquoise.

The researchers scanned the surface of a limpet’s shell using scanning electron microscopy, and found no structural differences in areas with and without the stripes — an observation that led them to think that perhaps the stripes arose from features embedded deeper in the shell.

To get a picture of what lay beneath, the researchers used a combination of high-resolution 2-D and 3-D structural analysis to reveal the 3-D nanoarchitecture of the photonic structures embedded in the limpets’ translucent shells.

What they found was revealing: In the regions with blue stripes, the shells’ top and bottom layers were relatively uniform, with dense stacks of calcium carbonate platelets and thin organic layers, similar to the shell structure of other mollusks. However, about 30 microns beneath the shell surface the researchers noted a stark difference. In these regions, the researchers found that the regular plates of calcium carbonate morphed into two distinct structural features: a multilayered structure with regular spacing between calcium carbonate layers resembling a zigzag pattern, and beneath this, a layer of randomly dispersed, spherical particles.

The researchers measured the dimensions of the zigzagging plates, and found the spacing between them was much wider than the more uniform plates running through the shell’s unstriped sections. They then examined the potential optical roles of both the multilayer zigzagging structure and the spherical particles.

Kolle and his colleagues used optical microscopy, spectroscopy, and diffraction microscopy to quantify the blue stripe’s light-reflection properties. They then measured the zigzagging structures and their angle with respect to the shell surface, and determined that this structure is optimized to reflect blue and green light.

The researchers also determined that the disordered arrangement of spherical particles beneath the zigzag structures serves to absorb transmitted light that otherwise could de-saturate the reflected blue color.

From these results, Kolle and his team deduced that the zigzag pattern acts as a filter, reflecting only blue light. As the rest of the incoming light passes through the shell, the underlying particles absorb this light — an effect that makes a shell’s stripes appear even more brilliantly blue.

And, for those who can never get enough detail, the news release provides a bit more than the video,

The team then sought to tackle a follow-up question: What purpose do the blue stripes serve? The limpets live either concealed at the base of kelp plants, or further up in the fronds, where they are visually exposed. Those at the base grow a thicker shell with almost no stripes, while their blue-striped counterparts live higher on the plant.

Limpets generally don’t have well-developed eyes, so the researchers reasoned that the blue stripes must not serve as a communication tool, attracting one organism to another. Rather, they think that the limpet’s stripes may be a defensive mechanism: The mollusk sits largely exposed on a frond, so a plausible defense against predators may be to appear either invisible or unappetizing. The researchers determined that the latter is more likely the case, as the limpet’s blue stripes resemble the patterning of poisonous marine snails that also happen to inhabit similar kelp beds.

Kolle says the group’s work has revealed an interesting insight into the limpet’s optical properties, which may be exploited to engineer advanced transparent optical displays. The limpet, he points out, has evolved a microstructure in its shell to satisfy an optical purpose without overly compromising the shell’s mechanical integrity. Materials scientists and engineers could take inspiration from this natural balancing act.

“It’s all about multifunctional materials in nature: Every organism — no matter if it has a shell, or skin, or feathers — interacts in various ways with the environment, and the materials with which it interfaces to the outside world frequently have to fulfill multiple functions simultaneously,” Kolle says. “[Engineers] are more and more focusing on not only optimizing just one single property in a material or device, like a brighter screen or higher pixel density, but rather on satisfying several … design and performance criteria simultaneously. We can gain inspiration and insight from nature.”

Peter Vukusic, an associate professor of physics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, says the researchers “have done an exquisite job” in uncovering the optical mechanism behind the limpet’s conspicuous appearance.

“By using multiple and complementary analysis techniques they have elucidated, in glorious detail, the many structural and physiological factors that have given rise to the optical signature of this highly evolved system,” says Vukusic, who was not involved in the study. “The animal’s complex morphology is highly interesting for photonics scientists and technologists interested in manipulating light and creating specialized appearances.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A highly conspicuous mineralized composite photonic architecture in the translucent shell of the blue-rayed limpet by Ling Li, Stefan Kolle, James C. Weaver, Christine Ortiz, Joanna Aizenberg & Mathias Kolle. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6322 doi:10.1038/ncomms7322 Published 26 February 2015

This article is open access.

Opals, Diana Ross, and nanophotonic hybridization

It was a bit of a stretch to include Diana Ross in a Jan. 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk about nanophotonic research at the University of Twente’s MESA+ Institute for Nano­technology  but I’m glad they did,

Ever since the early 1900s work of Niels Bohr and Hendrik Lorentz, it is known that atoms display characteristic resonant behavior to light. The hallmark of a resonance is its characteristic peak-trough behavior of the refractive index with optical frequency. Scientists from the Dutch MESA+ Institute for Nano­technology at the University of Twente have recently infiltrated cesium atoms in a self-assembled opal to create a hybrid nanophotonic system. By tuning the opal’s forbidden gap relative to the atomic resonance, dra­matic changes are observed in reflectivity. In the most extreme case, the atomic reflection spectrum is turned upside down[1] compared to the traditional case. Since dispersion is crucial in the control of optical signal pulses, the new results offer opportunities for optical information manipulation. As atoms are exquisite storage de­vices for light quanta, the results open vistas on quantum information processing, as well as on new nanoplasmonics.

A Jan. 12, 2015 MESA+ Institute for Nano­technology at the University of Twente press release, which originated the news item, provides an illustrative diagram and a wealth of technical detail about the research,

Courtesy of the University of Twente

Courtesy of the University of Twente

While the speed of light c is proverbial, it can readily be modified by sending light through a medium with a certain refractive index n. In the medium, the speed will be decreased by the index to c/n. In any material, the refractive index depends on the frequency of the light. Usually the refractive index increases with frequency, called normal dispersion as it prevails at most frequencies in most materials such as a glass of water, a telecom fiber, or an atomic vapor. Close to the resonance frequency of the material, the index strongly decreases, called anomalous dispersion.

Dispersion is essential to control how optical bits of information – encoded as short pulses – is manipulated optical circuits. In modern optics at the nanoscale, called nanophotonics, dispersion is controlled with classes of complex nanostruc­tures that cause novel behavior to emerge. An example is a photonic crystal fiber, which does not consist of only glass like a traditional fiber, but of an intricate arrange­ment of holes and glass nanostructures.

The Twente team led by Harding devised a hybrid system consisting of an atomic vapor infiltrated in an opal photonic crystal. Photonic crystals have attracted considerable attention for their ability to radically control propagation and emission of light. These nanostructures are well-known for their ability to control the emission and propagation of light. The opals have a periodic variation of the refractive index (see Figure 1) that ensures that a certain color of light is forbidden to exist inside the opal. The light cannot enter the opal as it is reflected, which is called a gap (see Figure 1). In an analogy to semiconductors, such an effect is called a “photonic band gap”. Photonic gaps are at the basis of tiny on-chip light sources and lasers, efficient solar cells, invisibility cloaks, and devices to process optical information.

The Twente team changed the index of refraction of the voids in a photonic crystal by substituting the air by a vapor of atoms with a strong resonance, as shown in Figure 1. The contrast of the refractive index between the vapor and the opal’s silica nano­spheres was effectively used as a probe. The density of the cesium vapor was greatly varied by changing the temperature in the cell up to 420 K. At the same time, the photonic gap of the opal shifted relative to the atomic resonance due to a slow chemical reaction between the opal’s backbone material (silica) and the cesium.

On resonance, light excites an atom to a higher state and subsequently the atom reemits the light. Hence, an atom behaves like a little cavity that stores light. Simultaneously the index of refraction changes strongly for colors near resonance. For slightly longer wavelengths the index of refraction is high, on resonance it is close to one, and slightly shorter wavelengths it can even decrease below one. This effect of the cesium atoms is clearly visible in the reflectivity spectra, shown in Figure 2 [not included here], as a sharp increase and decrease of the reflectivity near the atomic resonance. Intriguingly, the characteristic peak-and-trough behavior of atoms (seen at 370 K) was turned upside down at the highest temperature (420 K), where the ce­sium reso­nance was on the red side of the opal’s stopgap.

In nanophotonics, many efforts are currently being devoted to create arrays of nanoresonators in photonic crystals, for exquisite optical signal control on a chip. Unfortunately, however, there is a major challenge in engineering high-quality pho­tonic resonators: they are all different due to inevitable fabrication variations. Hence, it is difficult to tune every resonator in sync. “Our atoms in the opal may be consid­ered as the equivalent of an carefully engineered array of nano-resonators” explains Willem Vos, “Nature takes care that all resonators are all exactly the same. Our hy­brid system solves the variability problem and could perhaps be used to make pho­tonic memories, sensors or switches that are naturally tuned.” And leading Spanish theorist Javier Garcia de Abajo (ICFO) enthuses: “This is a fine and exciting piece of work, initiating the study of atomic resonances with photonic modes in a genuinely new fashion, and suggesting many exciting possibilities, for example through the extension of this study towards combinations with metal nanoplasmonics.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper published in Physical Review B,

Nanophotonic hybridization of narrow atomic cesium resonances and photonic stop gaps of opaline nanostructures by Philip J. Harding, Pepijn W. H. Pinkse, Allard P. Mosk, and Willem L. Vos. Phys. Rev. B 91, 045123 – Published 20 January 2015 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevB.91.045123

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an earlier iteration of the paper available on the open access arXiv.org website operated by Cornell University,

Nanophotonic hybridization of narrow atomic cesium resonances and photonic stop gaps of opaline nanostructures by Philip J. Harding, Pepijn W.H. Pinkse, Allard P. Mosk, Willem L. Vos. (Submitted on 11 Sep 2014) arXiv:1409.3417

As I understand it, the arXiv.org website is intended to open up access to research and to offer an informal peer review process.

Finally, for anyone who’s nostalgic or perhaps has never heard Diana Ross sing ‘Upside Down’,

A multiferroic material for more powerful solar cells

A Nov. 12, 2014 INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique; Université du Québec) news release (also on EurekAlert), describes new work on solar cells from Federico Rosei’s laboratory (Note: Links have been removed; A French language version of the news release can be found here),

Applying a thin film of metallic oxide significantly boosts the performance of solar panel cells—as recentlydemonstrated by Professor Federico Rosei and his team at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS). The researchers have developed a new class of materials comprising elements such as bismuth, iron, chromium, and oxygen. These“multiferroic” materials absorb solar radiation and possess unique electrical and magnetic properties. This makes them highly promising for solar technology, and also potentially useful in devices like electronic sensors and flash memory drives. …

The INRS research team discovered that by changing the conditions under which a thin film of these materials is applied, the wavelengths of light that are absorbed can be controlled. A triple-layer coating of these materials—barely 200 nanometres thick—captures different wavelengths of light. This coating converts much more light into electricity than previous trials conducted with a single layer of the same material. With a conversion efficiency of 8.1% reported by [Riad] Nechache and his coauthors, this is a major breakthrough in the field.

The team currently envisions adding this coating to traditional single-crystal silicon solar cells (currently available on the market). They believe it could increase maximum solar efficiency by 18% to 24% while also boosting cell longevity. As this technology draws on a simplified structure and processes, as well as abundant and stable materials, new photovoltaic (PV) cells will be more powerful and cost less. This means that the INRS team’s breakthrough may make it possible to reposition silicon PV cells at the forefront of the highly competitive solar energy market.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Bandgap tuning of multiferroic oxide solar cells by R. Nechache, C. Harnagea, S. Li, L. Cardenas, W. Huang,  J. Chakrabartty, & F. Rosei. Nature Photonics (2014) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2014.255 Published online
10 November 2014

This paper is behind a paywall although there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.

I last mentioned Federico Rose in a March 4, 2014 post about a talk (The exploration of the role of nanoscience in tomorrow’s energy solutions) he was giving in Vancouver (Canada).

Nanoscale light confinement without metal (photonic circuits) at the University of Alberta (Canada)

To be more accurate, this is a step forward towards photonic circuits according to an Aug. 20, 2014 news item on Azonano,

The invention of fibre optics revolutionized the way we share information, allowing us to transmit data at volumes and speeds we’d only previously dreamed of. Now, electrical engineering researchers at the University of Alberta are breaking another barrier, designing nano-optical cables small enough to replace the copper wiring on computer chips.

This could result in radical increases in computing speeds and reduced energy use by electronic devices.

“We’re already transmitting data from continent to continent using fibre optics, but the killer application is using this inside chips for interconnects—that is the Holy Grail,” says Zubin Jacob, an electrical engineering professor leading the research. “What we’ve done is come up with a fundamentally new way of confining light to the nano scale.”

At present, the diameter of fibre optic cables is limited to about one thousandth of a millimetre. Cables designed by graduate student Saman Jahani and Jacob are 10 times smaller—small enough to replace copper wiring still used on computer chips. (To put that into perspective, a dime is about one millimetre thick.)

An Aug. 19, 2014 University of Alberta news release by Richard Cairney (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail and information about funding,

 Jahani and Jacob have used metamaterials to redefine the textbook phenomenon of total internal reflection, discovered 400 years ago by German scientist Johannes Kepler while working on telescopes.

Researchers around the world have been stymied in their efforts to develop effective fibre optics at smaller sizes. One popular solution has been reflective metallic claddings that keep light waves inside the cables. But the biggest hurdle is increased temperatures: metal causes problems after a certain point.

“If you use metal, a lot of light gets converted to heat. That has been the major stumbling block. Light gets converted to heat and the information literally burns up—it’s lost.”

Jacob and Jahani have designed a new, non-metallic metamaterial that enables them to “compress” and contain light waves in the smaller cables without creating heat, slowing the signal or losing data. …

The team’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative.

Jacob and Jahani are now building the metamaterials on a silicon chip to outperform current light confining strategies used in industry.

Given that this work is being performed at the nanoscale and these scientists are located within the Canadian university which houses Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT), the absence of any mention of the NINT comes as a surprise (more about this organization after the link to the researchers’ paper).

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Transparent subdiffraction optics: nanoscale light confinement without metal by Saman Jahani and Zubin Jacob. Optica, Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp. 96-100 (2014) http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/OPTICA.1.000096

This paper is open access.

In a search for the NINT’s website I found this summary at the University of Alberta’s NINT webpage,

The National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) was established in 2001 and is operated as a partnership between the National Research Council and the University of Alberta. Many NINT researchers are affiliated with both the National Research Council and University of Alberta.

NINT is a unique, integrated, multidisciplinary institute involving researchers from fields such as physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, informatics, pharmacy, and medicine. The main focus of the research being done at NINT is the integration of nano-scale devices and materials into complex nanosystems that can be put to practical use. Nanotechnology is a relatively new field of research, so people at NINT are working to discover “design rules” for nanotechnology and to develop platforms for building nanosystems and materials that can be constructed and programmed for a particular application. NINT aims to increase knowledge and support innovation in the area of nanotechnology, as well as to create work that will have long-term relevance and value for Alberta and Canada.

The University of Alberta’s NINT webpage also offers a link to the NINT’s latest rebranded website, The failure to mention the NINT gets more curious when looking at a description of NINT’s programmes one of which is hybrid nanoelectronics (Note: A link has been removed),

Hybrid NanoElectronics provide revolutionary electronic functions that may be utilized by industry through creating circuits that operate using mechanisms unique to the nanoscale. This may include functions that are not possible with conventional circuitry to provide smaller, faster and more energy-efficient components, and extend the development of electronics beyond the end of the roadmap.

After looking at a list of the researchers affiliated with the NINT, it’s apparent that neither Jahani or Jacob are part of that team. Perhaps they have preferred to work independently of the NINT ,which is one of the Canada National Research Council’s institutes.