Optical fibers are hair-like threads of glass used to guide light. Fibers of exceptional purity have proved an excellent way of sending information over long distances and are the foundation of modern telecommunication systems. Transmission relies on what's called total internal reflection, wherein the light propagates by effectively bouncing back and forth off of the fiber's internal surface. Though the word "total" implies light remains entirely trapped in the fiber, the laws of physics dictate that some of the light, in the form of what's called an evanescent field, also exists outside of the fiber. In telecommunications, the fiber core is more than ten times larger than the wavelength of light passing through. In this case, the evanescent fields are weak and vanish rapidly away from the fiber. Nanofibers have a diameter smaller than the wavelength of the guided light. Here, all of the light field cannot fit inside of the nanofiber, yielding a significant enhancement in the evanescent fields outside of the core. This allows the light to trap atoms (or other particles) near the surface of a nanofiber.
JQI researchers in collaboration with scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory have developed a new technique for visualizing light propagation through an optical nanofiber, detailed in a recent Optica paper. The result is a non-invasive measurement of the fiber size and shape and a real-time view of how light fields evolve along the nanofiber. Direct measurement of the fields in and around an optical nanofiber offers insight into how light propagates in these systems and paves the way for engineering customized evanescent atom traps.
In this work, researchers use a sensitive camera to collect light from what's known as Rayleigh scattering, demonstrating the first in-situ measurements of light moving through an optical nanofiber. Rayleigh scattering happens when light bounces, or scatters, off of particles much smaller than the wavelength of the light. In fibers, these particles can be impurities or density fluctuations in the glass, and the light scattered from them is ejected from the fiber. This allows one to view the propagating light from the side, in much the same way as one can see a beam of sunlight through fog. Importantly, the amount of light ejected depends on the polarization, or the orientation of oscillation of the light, and intensity of the field at each point, which means that capturing this light is a way to view the field.
The researchers here are interested in understanding the propagation of the field when the light waves are comprised from what are known as higher-order modes. Instead of having a uniform spatial profile, like that of a laser pointer, these modes can look like a doughnut, cloverleaf, or another more complicated pattern. Higher-order modes offer some advantages over the lowest order or "fundamental" mode. Due to their complexity, the evanescent field can have comparatively more light intensity in the region of interest—locally just outside the fiber. These higher order modes can also be used to make different types of optical patterns. Nanofibers aren't yet standardized and thus careful and complete characterization of both the fiber and the light passing through them is a necessary step towards making them a more practical and adaptable tool for research applications.