Materials with Phase-Changing Capabilities Could Be Used to Propagate Photons for Data Transmission

A new study into vanadium dioxide’s phase-changing capabilities and hexagonal boron nitride’s infrared properties holds promise for faster, more efficient optical data transmission, especially in big data “farms” where numerous computers must communicate to offer answers.

A research team from Vanderbilt University, the University of Georgia and Kansas State University discovered that the broad gradient in the infrared optical properties of vanadium dioxide, as it changes from insulating to metallic, offers exclusive implications for nanophotonics. That makes it feasible to perform on-chip manipulation of light at the nanoscale length-scales.

“By using this phase-change material, you change the local environment and, thus, wave propagation,” said Joshua Caldwell, associate professor of mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. “To achieve on-chip control of light propagation, this is required, not simply modulating the light on and off.”

Caldwell and his collaborators published a paper about their efforts, titled “Reconfigurable infrared hyperbolic metasurfaces using phase change materials,” in the October 22nd issue of the journal Nature Communications.

Co-author Richard Haglund, Stevenson Professor of Physics, elucidated the discovery’s potential in data transmission.

“On a chip, 80 percent of the real estate is taken up by wiring,” he said. “Wires have resistance, their transmission speed is limited and they get hot. Likewise, data lines that transmit signals using electrons have the same problem. If you could use photons to move information from Point A to Point B, you’d be making extremely high-speed data transfers without generating heat.”

The research was funded by National Science Foundation grant numbers CMMI 1538127 and 1553251 and Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant number FA9559-16-1-0172.

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