What’s plasmonics?

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Plasmons are electron density waves generated by light on metal surfaces that can encode more information than conventional electronics. Plasmonics combines optical and electronic data transfer for fast transmission over small wires. The technology’s limitation is that plasmons dissipate after a few millimeters, but nanostructured materials can be used to fabricate effective plasmonic devices. Plasmonics can be integrated with conventional silicon devices and has been used in biosensors.

Plasmons are waves of electron density, created when light strikes the surface of a metal under precise circumstances. These density waves are generated at optical frequencies and are very small and fast. In theory they can encode a lot of information, more than is possible for conventional electronics. Plasmonics are thought to incorporate the strengths of both optical and electronic data transfer, allowing for the fast transmission of information over very small wires.

Optical data transfer, as in optical fiber, allows for high bandwidth but requires bulky “cables,” actually pipes with reflective interiors. Electronic data transfer operates at lower frequencies than fiber optics, but requires only very small wires. Plasmonics, sometimes called “light on a wire,” would allow data to be transmitted at optical frequencies along the surface of a tiny metal wire, despite the fact that the data travels in the form of electron density distributions rather than photons.

The major limitation of this technology today is that plasmons tend to dissipate after a few millimeters, making them too short-lived to serve as the basis for computer chips, which are only a few centimeters wide. To send data over greater distances, the technology would need further improvements. The key is to use a material with a low refractive index, ideally negative, so that incoming electromagnetic energy is reflected parallel to the surface of the material and transmitted along its length as much as possible. There is no natural material with a negative refractive index, so nanostructured materials must be used to fabricate effective plasmonic devices. For this reason, plasmonics is often associated with nanotechnology.

Before any plasmonic chips are developed, the technology will likely be integrated with conventional silicon devices. Plasmonic wires can serve as high-bandwidth highways through the busiest areas of the chip. This technology has also been used in biosensors. When a particular protein or DNA molecule lands on the surface of a plasmon-carrying metallic material, it leaves its characteristic imprint at the angle at which it reflects the energy.

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