Researchers at Harvard University in the US have made a new type of optical coating that appears to change colour when its thickness is varied by just a few nanometres. The film, which is less than 20 nm thick, could be used to customize the colour of metal surfaces – a phenomenon that could not only be exploited to make pretty jewellery, but also a host of technologically advanced devices, including ultrathin light detectors and filters, displays, modulators and even solar cells.
Conventional dielectric optical coatings, which are a key component of almost every optical device, are typically made of layers of transparent (or "lossless") material, with each layer being at least a quarter wavelength of light in thickness. The new ultrathin optical coatings made by Federico Capasso's team are different in that they comprise nanometre-thick, and nearly opaque, highly light-absorbing dielectric materials, such as semiconductors. The researchers have shown, for example, that adding a 7 nm layer of germanium to the surface of a gold sample changes its colour from gold to pink. Adding another 4 nm layer makes it violet, and another 4 nm turns the coating dark blue (4 nm is less than 15 atoms thick).
The effect is similar to what we see when there is a thin film of oil of the road on a wet day and we see many different colours, explains Capasso. The colours appear thanks to interfering light waves as they pass through the oil into the water below and then are reflected back up. Some wavelengths of incident and reflected light constructively interfere with one another and are "boosted", while others destructively interfere and are absorbed.