Two researchers stand adjacent to optical equipment emitting red light in a lab

Ultrafast beam-steering breakthrough at Sandia Labs

March 28, 2023 8:00 am Published by

 In a major breakthrough in the fields of nanophotonics and ultrafast optics, a Sandia National Laboratories research team has demonstrated the ability to dynamically steer light pulses from conventional, so-called incoherent light sources.

This ability to control light using a semiconductor device could allow low-power, relatively inexpensive sources like LEDs or flashlight bulbs to replace more powerful laser beams in new technologies such as holograms, remote sensing, self-driving cars and high-speed communication.

“What we’ve done is show that steering a beam of incoherent light can be done,” said Prasad Iyer, Sandia scientist and lead author of the research, which was reported in the current issue of the journal Nature Photonics. The work was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Incoherent light is emitted by many common sources, such as an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb or an LED bulb. This light is called incoherent since the photons are emitted with different wavelengths and in a random fashion. A beam of light from a laser, however, does not spread and diffuse because the photons have the same frequency and phase and is thus called coherent light.

In the team’s research, they manipulated incoherent light by using artificially structured materials called metasurfaces, made from tiny building blocks of semiconductors called meta-atoms that can be designed to reflect light very efficiently. Although metasurfaces had previously shown promise for creating devices that could steer light rays to arbitrary angles, they also presented a challenge because they had only been designed for coherent light sources. Ideally, one would want a semiconductor device that can emit light like an LED, steer the light emission to a set angle by applying a control voltage and shift the steering angle at the fastest speed possible.

The researchers started with a semiconductor metasurface that had embedded tiny light sources called quantum dots. By using a control optical pulse, they were able to change, or reconfigure, the way the surface reflected light and steer the light waves emitted from the quantum dots in different directions over a 70-degree range for less than a trillionth-of-a-second, marking a significant success. Similar to laser-based steering, the steered beam restrained the tendency of incoherent light to spread over a wider viewing angle and instead produced bright light at a distance.

Read the complete news release.

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