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Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley led by mechanical engineering professor Xiang Zhang have devised a way to confine light in incredibly small spaces on the order of 10 nanometres or about 100 times thinner than current optical fibres.

To make this happen, the researchers have bound light photons to electrons, which allows them to propagate along the surface of a conductor — a process called surface plasmonics. Simulations showed that not only could the light compress into spaces only tens of nanometres wide, but it could travel distances nearly 100 times greater than by conventional surface plasmonics alone. The compressed light would make smaller optical fibres possible.

The research team’s technique consists of a very thin semiconductor wire placed close to a smooth sheet of silver. The system acts like a capacitor, storing energy between the wire and the metal sheet. As the light travels along the gap, it stimulates the build-up of charges on both the wire and the metal, and these charges allow the energy to be sustained for longer distances.

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