A new type of material that halts and absorbs light may lead to advances in solar energy, stealth technology, and other fields, experts report. Researchers ath the University at Buffalo developed a “hyperbolic metamaterial waveguide” that halts and ultimately absorbs each frequency of light, at slightly different places in a vertical direction, to catch a “rainbow” of wavelengths. The technology is essentially an advanced microchip made of ultra-thin films of metal and semiconductors and/or insulators.
“Electromagnetic absorbers have been studied for many years, especially for military radar systems,” says Qiaoqiang Gan, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at University at Buffalo.
“Right now, researchers are developing compact light absorbers based on optically thick semiconductors or carbon nanotubes. However, it is still challenging to realize the perfect absorber in ultra-thin films with tunable absorption band.
“We are developing ultra-thin films that will slow the light and therefore allow much more efficient absorption, which will address the long existing challenge.”
Light is made of photons that, because they move extremely fast, are difficult to tame. In their initial attempts to slow light, researchers relied upon cryogenic gases, which are very cold—roughly 240 degrees below zero Fahrenheit—and difficult to work with outside a laboratory.
Gan previously helped pioneer a way to slow light without cryogenic gases. He and other researchers at Lehigh University made nanoscale-sized grooves in metallic surfaces at different depths, a process that altered the optical properties of the metal. While the grooves worked, they had limitations. For example, the energy of the incident light cannot be transferred onto the metal surface efficiently, which hampered its use for practical applications.
Researchers say the technology could lead to advancements in an array of fields. For example, in electronics there is a phenomenon known as crosstalk, in which a signal transmitted on one circuit or channel creates an undesired effect in another circuit or channel. The on-chip absorber could potentially prevent this.
The on-chip absorber may also be applied to solar panels and other energy-harvesting devices. It could be especially useful in mid-infrared spectral regions as thermal absorber for devices that recycle heat after sundown, Gan says.
Technology such as the stealth bomber involves materials that make planes, ships, and other devices invisible to radar, infrared, sonar, and other detection methods. Because the on-chip absorber has the potential to absorb different wavelengths at a multitude of frequencies, it could be useful as a stealth-coating material.