Berkeley Lab scientists demonstrate a tunable graphene device, the first tool in a kit for putting terahertz light to work
Long-wavelength terahertz light is invisible – it's at the farthest end of the far infrared – but it's useful for everything from detecting explosives at the airport to designing drugs to diagnosing skin cancer. Now, for the first time, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California at Berkeley have demonstrated a microscale device made of graphene – the remarkable form of carbon that's only one atom thick – whose strong response to light at terahertz frequencies can be tuned with exquisite precision.
"The heart of our device is an array made of graphene ribbons only millionths of a meter wide," says Feng Wang of Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division, who is also an assistant professor of physics at UC Berkeley, and who led the research team. "By varying the width of the ribbons and the concentration of charge carriers in them, we can control the collective oscillations of electrons in the microribbons."
The name for such collective oscillations of electrons is "plasmons," a word that sounds abstruse but describes effects as familiar as the glowing colors in stained-glass windows.
"Plasmons in high-frequency visible light happen in three-dimensional metal nanostructures," Wang says. The colors of medieval stained glass, for example, result from oscillating collections of electrons on the surfaces of nanoparticles of gold, copper, and other metals, and depend on their size and shape. "But graphene is only one atom thick, and its electrons move in only two dimensions. In 2D systems, plasmons occur at much lower frequencies."
Microribbon arrays were made by depositing an atom-thick layer of carbon on a sheet of copper, then transferring the graphene layer to a silicon-oxide substrate and etching ribbon patterns into it. An ion gel with contact points for varying the voltage was placed on top of the graphene.
The gated graphene microarray was illuminated with terahertz radiation at beamline 1.4 of Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source, and transmission measurements were made with the beamline's infrared spectrometer. In this way the research team demonstrated coupling between light and plasmons that were stronger by an order of magnitude than in other 2D systems.
A final method of controlling plasmon strength and terahertz absorption depends on polarization. Light shining in the same direction as the graphene ribbons shows no variations in absorption according to frequency. But light at right angles to the ribbons – the same orientation as the oscillating electron sea – yields sharp absorption peaks. What's more, light absorption in conventional 2D semiconductor systems, such as quantum wells, can only be measured at temperatures near absolute zero. The Berkeley team measured prominent absorption peaks at room temperature.
"Terahertz radiation covers a spectral range that's difficult to work with, because until now there have been no tools," says Wang. "Now we have the beginnings of a toolset for working in this range, potentially leading to a variety of graphene-based terahertz metamaterials."
The Berkeley experimental setup is only a precursor of devices to come, which will be able to control the polarization and modify the intensity of terahertz light and enable other optical and electronic components, in applications from medical imaging to astronomy – all in two dimensions.
"Graphene plasmonics for tunable terahertz metamaterials," by Long Ju, Baisong Geng, Jason Horng, Caglar Girit, Michael Martin, Zhao Hao, Hans A. Bechtel, Xiaogan Liang, Alex Zettl, Y. Ron Shen, and Feng Wang, appears in Nature Nanotechnology, available in advanced online publication at www.nature.com/nnano/.
Martin, Hao, and Bechtel are with Berkeley Lab's Advanced Light Source. Hao is also with the Lab's Earth Sciences Division. Liang is with the Lab's Molecular Foundry. Ju, Geng, Horng, Girit, Zettl, Shen, and Wang are with UC Berkeley's Department of Physics. Geng is also with Lanzhou University, China. Zettl, Shen, and Wang are also with Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division. This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.
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