Harvard scientists monitor points of darkness for remote sensing and covert sensing applications

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Metasurface that generated point singularities

Harvard researchers have developed techniques to control dark spots in light using metasurfaces, opening up new possibilities in fields such as remote sensing, precision measurement, and covert sensing. The team created precise dark spots that can capture atoms or serve as measurement points for imaging, and developed resilient polarization singularities, stable dark spots in polarized optical fields. This is a scanning electron microscope image of the metasurface that generated the point singularities. Credit: Harvard University

Two studies report new ways to use metasurfaces to create and control dark areas called optical singularities.

Optical devices and materials enable scientists and engineers to harness light for research and real-world applications, such as sensing and microscopy. Federico Capassos’ group at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering Applied Sciences (SEAS) has spent years inventing more powerful and sophisticated optical methods and tools. Now, his team has developed new techniques for exerting control over points of darkness, rather than light, using metasurfaces.

Dark regions in electromagnetic fields, or optical singularities, have traditionally presented a challenge due to their complex structures and the difficulty in modeling and sculpting them. These singularities, however, carry the potential for breakthrough applications in fields such as remote sensing and precision measurement, said Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering at SEAS and corresponding senior author on two new documents describing the work.

Experimental intensity profiles

Experimental intensity profiles, with the point singularities labeled. Credit: Harvard University

In 2011, the Capassos lab introduced metasurfaces, or arrays of nanostructures with sub-wavelength spacing. In 2016, they used metasurfaces to build high-performance metalenses flat optical lenses comprising nanopillars that they fabricated using semiconductor lithography techniques that unlocked a new strategy for focusing light using extremely lightweight devices.

The latest studies by the Capasso group published in Science Advances report how metasurface technology can harness not just light, but also darkness.

Both of these studies introduce new classes of optical singularities regions of designed darkness using powerful but intuitive algorithms to inform the fabrication of metasurfaces, said Soon Wei Daniel Lim, co-first author of the paper in Nature Communications with Joon-Suh Park.

In that study, Lim and collaborators designed and fabricated an optical device containing metasurfaces of titanium dioxide nanopillars that can control light to create an array of optical singularities.

To control exactly where these points of darkness appear, Lim used a computer algorithm to help him reverse engineer the design of the metasurface.

I told the computer: Heres what I want to achieve in terms of dark spots, tell me what shape and diameter the nanopillars should be on this metasurface to make this happen, he said.

As light travels through the metasurface and lens, it generates a prescribed array of dark spots.

These dark spots are exciting because they could be used as optical traps to capture atoms, Lim said. Its possible this could be used to simplify the optical architecture used in atomic physics labs, replacing todays conventional equipment instruments that take up 30 feet of space on a lab table with compact, lightweight optical devices.

Dark spots arent just handy for trapping atoms. They can also be useful as highly precise reference positions for imaging.

Points of darkness are much smaller than points of light, Lim said. As part of an imaging system, that makes them effective points of measurement to accurately discriminate between two different positions within a sample.

In their Science Advances paper, the Capasso group described a new class of optical singularities: extremely stable points of darkness in a polarized optical field, known as polarization singularities.

Weve designed points of darkness that can withstand a wide range of perturbations they are topologically protected, said Christina Spaegele, first author of the paper. This robustness opens the way to optical devices with high reliability and durability in various applications.

Previous research achieved some polarization singularities, but the conditions for maintaining that perfect spot of darkness were extremely fragile, making them easily destroyed by stray light or other environmental conditions.

By shining light through a specially-designed metasurface and focusing lens, we can produce an unwavering polarization singularity surrounded entirely by points of light essentially creating a dark spot inside a sphere of brightness, Spaegele said.

The technique is so robust that even introducing a defect to the metasurface doesnt destroy the dark spot, but simply shifts its position.

This degree of control could be especially useful for imaging samples in hostile environments, where vibrations, pressure, temperature, and stray light would typically interfere with imaging behavior, Spaegele said.

The team says these new developments in optical singularities have implications for remote sensing and covert detection.

Points of darkness could be used to mask out bright sources while imaging a scene, allowing us to see faint objects that are otherwise overshadowed, Capasso said. Objects or detectors placed at these dark positions will also not give away their position by scattering light, allowing them to be hidden without affecting the surrounding light.

References:

Point singularity array with metasurfaces by Soon Wei Daniel Lim, Joon-Suh Park, Dmitry Kazakov, Christina M. Spgele, Ahmed H. Dorrah, Maryna L. Meretska and Federico Capasso, 5 June 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39072-6

Topologically protected optical polarization singularities in four-dimensional space by Christina M. Spaegele, Michele Tamagnone, Soon Wei Daniel Lim, Marcus Ossiander, Maryna L. Meretska and Federico Capasso, 16 June 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adh0369

Harvards Office of Technology Development has protected the intellectual property arising from these studies and is exploring commercialization opportunities.

Additional authors who contributed to these papers include Dmitry Kazakov, Ahmed H. Dorrah, Maryna L. Meterska, Michele Tamagnone, and Marcus Ossiander.

This research was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the European Research Council.


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Image Source : scitechdaily.com

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