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Where did the photon that just hit your eye come from? High school chemistry textbooks would answer that the photon came from an atom and that the properties of that photon are dependent only on the atom's element. Research conducted by Manning Assistant Professor of Engineering Rashid Zia '01 shows that by manipulating an atom's electromagnetic environment, researchers can dramatically alter the nature of the photons it will emit. Zia was recently named the leader of a $4.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative funded by the Air Force to study this effect, which could be the basis for super-fast optical computing, unbreakable encrypted communication and new forms of high density information storage.
But all of these new technologies rely on gradient electromagnetic fields to manipulate the nature of emitted photons. If the wavelength of an incoming electromagnetic field is shrunk relative to an atom, the atom can recognize the magnetic nature of the field and more complex, normally "forbidden" photon emissions can take place.
Analogously, the Earth appears flat, and people feel gravity along on axis - gravity pulls down as opposed to up. But if the Earth were shrunk so that its curvature became apparent, we would feel gravity along two axes, pulling both down and towards the center of the planet.
Zia and collaborators from Penn, Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology will develop new materials that will "shrink the Earth" for photons, or reduce the wavelengths of incoming electromagnetic waves so photons will be affected both by electricity and magnetism. Then the researchers will seek new paths for photon emission using these new tools.
Many applications of quantum optics research first require photon emitters that can utilize both the magnetic and electric nature of light, Zia said.
"Diamond is an excellent material for manipulating wavelengths, but obviously diamond is not a reasonable material if this technology is ever going to be used on the industrial scale," Zia said. "We are working on materials that can be fabricated using techniques currently used to make semiconductors that exhibit similar optical properties."
These fabricated materials, known as meta-materials, exhibit nonstandard properties, such as the ability to reverse the direction a wave travels and the ability to dramatically alter the wavelength of entering waves.
These materials, which were first developed 20 years ago, have exciting technological implications such as super-lenses, which exceed the theoretical limits of image clarity, invisibility cloaks - though Zia doubts the feasibility of invisibility in the Harry Potter sense - and powerful micro-antennae.
"The smart phone in your pocket probably has a meta-material antenna," Zia said. Meta-material antennae use the exact inverse of the process Zia uses for his photon emitters - they take signals with very short wavelengths and make them long. The research led by Zia will not only result in a better understanding of how meta-material photon emitters work, but will also help researchers gain a better understanding of the meta-materials themselves.
Jonathan Kurvits, a physics graduate student in Zia's lab, said, "This is fast-paced science. We go through the whole process - model, make, measure - remarkably quickly. It is difficult to say what we will find with this new grant."
The shelves of chemical samples waiting to be tested in Zai's lab testify that the lab is far from finished in terms of understanding the seemingly basic phenomenon of an atom emitting a photon.
"The science we do, trying to understand at a quantum level the emission of photons, is really fundamental," Zia said. "At this point, we really don't know the applications of the photon emitters we develop. Velcro was invented for space - now we use it on shoes."
Nonetheless, Zia and his lab suggest the potential for quantum photon emitters to revolutionize electronic communication both within devices and across long distance is immense. The lab recently developed a material whose effects on waves can be changed rapidly with electricity, Kurvits said. This material could be a component of a photon emitter that could rapidly transfer information by the nature of the photons it releases.
In the future, photons might not only carry information from this page to your eye, but also transmit everything from email to banking transactions.