Jun 21st 2017

Nanophotonics: Small Scale, Big Impact

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Light’s ubiquitous nature means we can take optics, the science of light, for granted. After all, we know it’s responsible for illuminating homes while sensors developed to detect light are used in everything from cameras to NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a powerful window into the early universe. But, there’s something extraordinary happening in nanophotonics: the observation of light on the smallest scale possible. While slight, the applications could help revolutionize science and technology.

Light on the Smallest Scale

Flickr credit: Slim Dandy
Solar Panel (Flickr)

Size does matter. That’s definitely true with technology. When size shrinks, power and efficiency increases. There’s less resistance, faster transmission speeds and better usage of power. That’s why we have powerful computers that fit in the palm of our hand. Photonics, the study of photons, is following a similar trajectory. Fiber optics, lasers and solar panels are just a few examples of photonics we use every day.

While solar panels are getting better at capturing and converting the sun’s rays into energy, they are still too large to install in most homes. For city dwellers, you can forget about having a solar farm powering all your needs. Internet speeds up to a gigabit are a dream for most people, but cheaper fiber-optic cables could make that a reality. Instead of companies citing the astronomical cost of replacing copper wires with fiber, startups could offer a viable solution to slow downloads. Nanophotonics can help change that by exploring the interactions of light and objects on a wavelength or subwavelength scale. That same thinking is being applied across various technologies and could even change how we power homes or treat cancer.

David Yeaton-Massey, a research scientist at Northrop Grumman, comments: “In addition to exploring how light and matter behave at these tiny sizes (the nanoscale), we’re also exploring what happens at the smallest power scales possible; we want to explore how we can read and write information using individual photons.”

The Versatility of Optics

Solar power, while great for the environment, is anything but efficient. Silicon-based solar panels are hovering around a 20 percent efficiency, with thinner solar films around 12 percent. When the sun’s rays hit solar panels, most of the potential energy is reflected or diffused, thus reducing energy conversion.

Nanophotonics can help solve the main issues with solar panels. Nanostructures can be created that better absorb the light. Another method involves guiding the light along the surface of the panel to reduce scatter. These nanostructures would reduce the size of solar panels, which would drastically reduce the cost while increasing efficiency. That’s a win-win situation for consumers and the environment.

Microscopes are also benefiting from nanophotonics. Manipulating light on the smallest level lets scientists develop new techniques to observe nanostructures or the inner workings of cells.

Nanophotonics could make cancer treatments more specific, which would help reduce tumors and the negative effects of radiation therapy. A course of treatment could involve doctors injecting gold nanorods, developed to bond with specific cancer-related cells, into a patient. These nanorods would latch onto cancerous cells while ignoring healthy cells. The other advantage would involve the type of radiation used for treatment. Gold nanorods are great at absorbing near-infrared light while healthy human cells only absorb a small amount of this type of radiation. Doctors could use near-infrared lasers to reduce tumors with minimal damage to surrounding healthy cells.

Even the old-fashioned light bulb, tossed aside in favor of more efficient LED bulbs, could stage a comeback courtesy of nanophotonics. As Yeaton-Massey suggests, there seems to be endless opportunities when it comes to the study of light on even the tiniest of scales.

Perhaps you’re the one who’ll break new ground in the study of nanophotonics. Perhaps you can find such an opportunity at Northrop Grumman.

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