Metallic and dielectric nanostructures allow us to break the diffraction limit of light providing much stronger interactions of light and matter than nature usually allows. Our research includes nanoscale plasmon lasers, random lasers, sensitive biodetectors, quantum plasmonics, single-molecule studies and artificial nonlinear optical materials and forms a large part of the Centre for Plasmonics and Metamaterials.

Plasmonic Sensors

Academic Staff: Professor Stefan Maier

The field of plasmonics uses collective electronic resonances in metal nanostructures to compress light fields into tiny volumes, often much less than an optical wavelength. Such structures can be designed to concentrate light to enable extremely sensitive chemical detection, down to just a handful of biomolecules, via a dramatic amplification of their optical absorption characteristics.  Similar approaches are being pursued at the other end of the spectrum, where we use designer “spoof plasmon” surfaces to confine THz radiation close to the surface where it can be strongly absorbed. A well-known example of devices relying on localised plasmon resonances are glucose-sensors for diabetics.

SERS, surface enhanced Raman Spectroscopy, exploits the same plasmonic field enhancement effect to achieve enhancement of vibrational coupling of molecules to light by many orders of magnitude. Imperial researchers led by Prof Cohen developed the use of coupled plasmons between colloidal gold nanostructures to move towards a method capable of detecting disease-specific enzymes with unprecedented levels of sensitivity.

Integrated Plasmonic Semiconductor Devices

Academic Staff: Dr Rupert Oulton and Professor Stefan Maier

Ever since the 1990s, researchers have endeavoured to make lasers ever smaller. While it is logical that lasers should be compact if we are to integrate them in optical circuitry similar to integrated electronics, two important physical motivations arise: firstly, smaller lasers have reduced laser thresholds leading to lower power consumption and higher efficiency; secondly, small lasers can be incredibly fast. There are numerous reasons why these features are important, but the ability to control and manipulate light matter interactions is at the heart of contemporary solid state and optical physics. In the past few years, we have been exploring the speed of these metallic nano-lasers based on Zinc Oxide. Indeed, these lasers are as fast as expected, but by being so small as they are, they can be switched on and off in less than a pico-second – in the so-called ultrafast regime! Other work involves transferring our nano-laser technology to more conventional III-V semiconductor materials.

Silicon photonics is a promising platform for short haul data communications. Plasmonics concepts can have a major impact on this technology, both from the perspectives of miniaturisation and functional capabilities. We have been developing plasmonic components to focus light to the nano-metre scale where light can be extremely intense. Usually, microscope lenses can only focus light down to the diffraction limit, which is about half of the wavelength of light being focussed – about 750 nm at the telecommunications wavelength of 1500 nm. However, with metal nanostructures, light’s focus is only limited by how small one can fabricate something – about 25 nm in this case. We have also shown how the focussed fields can be used to achieve extremely strong nonlinear frequency mixing. This is an exciting breakthrough as it lifts many of the limitations of conventional nonlinear optics. We are currently investigating a number of key concepts relevant to data communications with silicon.

Nonlinear Plasmonics

Academic Staff: Professor Stefan Maier and Dr Rupert Oulton

Our work in nonlinear plasmonics main involves harmonic generation, whereby we double or triple the frequency of laser light using metallic nano-particles to create the conversion process. In particular, there is a long history of studying second harmonic generation in metallic antennas as intrinsically, these materials should not exhibit a second order response at all. Recently, we have investigated the nonlinear response of individual antennas, to understand better how to build a more effective non-linear metamaterial. Previous work in the literature has stuck to the rule that antennas must break centro-symmetry to be effective – however, our work shows a counter example – a non-centro symmetry antenna that out-performs a centrosymmetric one! Our work thus reveals the importance of a microscopic interpretation when making nonlinear metamaterials. Using this information, we have designed the most effective non-linear antennas for second harmonic generation reported to date. This work may also lead to exciting capabilities in quantum optics, by exploiting the artificial nonlinearity we are engineer.

Complex Nanophotonics

Academic Staff: Dr Riccardo Sapienza

Our research activity is focussed on single-emitter spectroscopy and unconventional lasing action in complex nanophotonic systems and photonic networks. Complex nanophotonic networks offer a unique approach to light transport and light emission control, by designing a set of distributed single emitters that share information through photonic connections, and that can be remotely addressed. 

By borrowing the mindset of network theory, we solve the Maxwell equations on a graph, and we study the emergent nature of the optical modes of nanoscale networks. We are especially interested in the impact of topology, and in particular correlated disorder, on the global optical properties of the networks and the degree of spatial localisation of the optical modes. We exploit these networks to achieve unconventional lasing, with multifunctions that can be controlled and "learnt". Moreover photonic networks control light scattering via random walks, holding a great potential as a novel platform for nanoscale quantum optics.

Nanoscale Quantum Optics

Academic Staff: Professor Stefan Maier, Dr Rupert Oulton and Dr Riccardo Sapienza

The continued demand for increased information density is driving a need for smaller and faster bits: only a novel approach to communication can sustain our growing needs. Nanophotonics and nanoscale optics, which are aimed at coherent control and manipulation of single photons emitted by individual quantum emitters in a nanostructured photonic environment offer a revolutionary new approach to computation and information technology: bits can be carried in the state of light and processed by nanoscopic amount of matter.

Our work aims at developing the technological building blocks and scientific understanding necessary to bring quantum optics to the nanoscale, by confining the electromagnetic fields and sculpturing them with nanostructures to enhance photon generation and to control their propagation to distant locations. 

Quantum Metamaterials

Academic Staff: Professor Chris Phillips and Professor Stefan Maier

We also make quantum metamaterial “superlenses”, using quantum theory to design structures where light beams propagate without spreading by diffraction. We look at them with a new s-SNOM microscope, that maps IR spectra at a resolution of 100th of a wavelength, and we also use it to measure chemical distributions within single cells for the first time.