Nanoscale surface turns material into a multifunctional optical device

A nanoscale surface has helped craft an optical device that is a tunable optical switch, optical limiter and one-way window for light.

By Jason Daley November 30, 2023
Courtesy: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Discrete sensing insights

  • UW-Madison engineers crafted an optical device using vanadium dioxide, enabling an electrically controlled switch, limiter, and one-way window for light.
  • Integrating a metasurface and precise electrical control, this device harnesses vanadium dioxide’s properties, demonstrating multifunctionality in controlling infrared light.

University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers have used the material vanadium dioxide to craft an optical device that is an electrically tunable optical switch, optical limiter and one-way window for light.

The research was led by Mikhail Kats, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison, Chenghao Wan (PhD MS&E ’22), now a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, and Jonathan King, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering.

“We used a metasurface to engineer the interaction between light and this phase-transition material, vanadium oxide, making a device with a number of useful functionalities,” Kats said. “And we’ve integrated electrical control all in one structure.”

The phase transition of vanadium dioxide, giving it the ability to switch from a semiconductor to a metal and vice versa, was discovered more than half a century ago. However, finding ways to incorporate the material into functional devices has been difficult. At room temperature, vanadium dioxide is transparent to infrared light; when heated, however, it becomes opaque.

Simply zapping the material with electricity to heat it up isn’t precise enough—so Kats and his team created a thin nanodevice, or metasurface, which both provides optical control and simultaneously acts as a nano-heater, allowing them to fine-tune vanadium dioxide’s temperature-dependent properties using an electrical current.

After extensive testing and modeling of the material to understand its properties and transitions, they made their metasurface from extremely thin gold. It’s etched with photonic structures that Wan created using lithography in a cleanroom in the college’s Nanoscale Fabrication Center.

By adding a thin metasurface to vanadium dioxide, the team is able to create an electrically tunable optical device.

By adding a thin metasurface to vanadium dioxide, the team is able to create an electrically tunable optical device. Courtesy: University of Wisconsin-Madison

The team built the metasurface on top of a high-quality thin film of vanadium dioxide synthesized by longtime collaborator Shriram Ramanathan and his students at Rutgers University. King completed the device by packaging it in a small circuit board for direct electrical control.

“It was a bit of an effort,” Wan said. “It took time and patience to come up with a reliable fabrication ‘recipe’ before we felt confident we could create the device as desired.”

When it’s all put together, the device is multifunctional. When the team precisely heats the material using the metasurface, they can use it as an optical switch, which allows them to block some or all of the infrared light passing through the material. It can be an optical limiter, which prevents infrared light passing through it from becoming too bright; that’s useful in protecting sensitive cameras and other equipment. It can also be used as a nonlinear optical isolator, which allows light to pass through the material in one direction but not the other.

The team can tune the device to work with the long-wave infrared spectrum and the short wave as well. Adding strain or stress to the vanadium dioxide can provide even more functionality, something the team hopes to investigate in the near future.

The researchers emphasize that this paper is the culmination of a series of interconnected studies and papers stretching across nearly 10 years and made possible through sustained teamwork and collaboration. “Being in a group is all about building expertise and our set of capabilities and ultimately fusing them all together,” Kats said. “Like in this case: Over almost a decade, our simulations and applications experience and materials collaboration resulted in significant engineering progress.”

Author Bio: Jason Daley, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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