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Strengthening electron-triggered light emission

The way electrons interact with photons of light is a key part of many modern technologies, from lasers to solar panels to LEDs. But the interaction is inherently a weak one because of a major mismatch in scale: A wavelength of visible light is about 1,000 times larger than an electron, so the way the two things affect each other is limited by that disparity.

Now, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have come up with an innovative way to make much stronger interactions between photons and electrons possible, in the process producing a hundredfold increase in the emission of light from a phenomenon called Smith-Purcell radiation. The finding has potential implications for both commercial applications and fundamental scientific research, although it will require more years of research to make it practical.

The findings are reported today in the journal Nature, in a paper by MIT postdocs Yi Yang (now an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong) and Charles Roques-Carmes, MIT professors Marin Soljačić and John Joannopoulos, and five others at MIT, Harvard University, and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

In a combination of computer simulations and laboratory experiments, the team found that using a beam of electrons in combination with a specially designed photonic crystal — a slab of silicon on an insulator, etched with an array of nanometer-scale holes — they could theoretically predict stronger emission by many orders of magnitude than would ordinarily be possible in conventional Smith-Purcell radiation. They also experimentally recorded a one hundredfold increase in radiation in their proof-of-concept measurements.

Unlike other approaches to producing sources of light or other electromagnetic radiation, the free-electron-based method is fully tunable — it can produce emissions of any desired wavelength, simply by adjusting the size of the photonic structure and the speed of the electrons. This may make it especially valuable for making sources of emission at wavelengths that are difficult to produce efficiently, including terahertz waves, ultraviolet light, and X-rays.

The team has so far demonstrated the hundredfold enhancement in emission using a repurposed electron microscope to function as an electron beam source. But they say that the basic principle involved could potentially enable far greater enhancements using devices specifically adapted for this function.

The approach is based on a concept called flatbands, which have been widely explored in recent years for condensed matter physics and photonics but have never been applied to affecting the basic interaction of photons and free electrons. The underlying principle involves the transfer of momentum from the electron to a group of photons, or vice versa. Whereas conventional light-electron interactions rely on producing light at a single angle, the photonic crystal is tuned in such a way that it enables the production of a whole range of angles.

The same process could also be used in the opposite direction, using resonant light waves to propel electrons, increasing their velocity in a way that could potentially be harnessed to build miniaturized particle accelerators on a chip. These might ultimately be able to perform some functions that currently require giant underground tunnels, such as the 30-kilometer-wide Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

“If you could actually build electron accelerators on a chip,” Soljačić says, “you could make much more compact accelerators for some of the applications of interest, which would still produce very energetic electrons. That obviously would be huge. For many applications, you wouldn’t have to build these huge facilities.”

The new system could also potentially provide a highly controllable X-ray beam for radiotherapy purposes, Roques-Carmes says.

And the system could be used to generate multiple entangled photons, a quantum effect that could be useful in the creation of quantum-based computational and communications systems, the researchers say. “You can use electrons to couple many photons together, which is a considerably hard problem if using a purely optical approach,” says Yang. “That is one of the most exciting future directions of our work.”

Much work remains to translate these new findings into practical devices, Soljačić cautions. It may take some years to develop the necessary interfaces between the optical and electronic components and how to connect them on a single chip, and to develop the necessary on-chip electron source producing a continuous wavefront, among other challenges.

“The reason this is exciting,” Roques-Carmes adds, “is because this is quite a different type of source.” While most technologies for generating light are restricted to very specific ranges of color or wavelength, and “it’s usually difficult to move that emission frequency. Here it’s completely tunable. Simply by changing the velocity of the electrons, you can change the emission frequency. … That excites us about the potential of these sources. Because they’re different, they offer new types of opportunities.”

But, Soljačić concludes, “in order for them to become truly competitive with other types of sources, I think it will require some more years of research. I would say that with some serious effort, in two to five years they might start competing in at least some areas of radiation.”

The research team also included Steven Kooi at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Haoning Tang and Eric Mazur at Harvard University, Justin Beroz at MIT, and Ido Kaminer at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The work was supported by the U.S. Army Research Office through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

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