Science Gazette

Bridging the gap between optics and electronics

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The optical and electrical worlds collide in a new spatial light modulator.

A simple spatial light modulator comprised of gold electrodes coated by a thin sheet of electro-optical material that alters its optical characteristics in response to electric impulses has been produced by researchers.

Spatial light modulators are typical optical components featured in a wide range of products, including home entertainment projectors, cutting-edge laser imaging, and optical computing. Pixel by pixel, these components may regulate many elements of a light, such as intensity and phase. To provide this control, most spatial light modulators nowadays depend on mechanical moving elements, however this method results in large and sluggish optical systems.

Researchers at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed a simple spatial light modulator made of gold electrodes covered by a thin film of electro-optical material that changes its optical properties in response to electric signals, in collaboration with a team from Washington University.

This is a first step toward more compact, high-speed, and accurate spatial light modulators, which might be employed in applications ranging from imaging to virtual reality, quantum communications, and sensing in the future.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Communications

Cristina Benea-Chelmus, a postdoctoral scholar at SEAS and the paper’s first author, remarked, “This basic spatial light modulator represents a bridge between the domains of optics and electronics.”

“You can leverage the whole backbone of electronics that has been built to open up new functions in optics when you link optics with electronics.”

The researchers employed electro-optic materials developed by University of Washington scientists Delwin L. Elder and Larry R. Dalton. The refractive index of this material varies when an electric signal is applied to it. The researchers were able to adjust the intensity of light in each pixel individually by splitting the material into pixels and using interlocking electrodes.

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The gadget can vary the intensity of light at each pixel considerably and effectively modulate light throughout the visible spectrum with just a little amount of electricity.

The novel spatial light modulators were employed for picture projection and distant sensing using single-pixel imaging by the researchers.

“We see our work as the start of a new field of hybrid organic-nanostructured electro-optics with broad applications in imaging, remote control, environmental monitoring, adaptive optics, and laser ranging,” said Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering, who is also a senior author on the paper.

The intellectual property connected with this study has been safeguarded by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, and monetization prospects are being explored.

Maryna L. Meretska, Delwin L. Elder, Michele Tamagnone, and Larry R. Dalton collaborated on the study. It was funded in part by the MURI program of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), under award number N00014-20-1-2450.

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