When an airplane begins to move faster than the speed of sound, it creates a shockwave that produces a “boom” of sound. Researchers at MIT working with a research team worldwide, have discovered a similar process in a sheet of graphene, in which a flow of electric current can, under certain circumstances, exceed the speed of slowed-down light and produce a kind of optical “boom”: an intense, focused beam of light.

This way of converting electricity into visible radiation is highly controllable, fast, and efficient, the researchers say, and could lead to a variety of applications.

There are many different ways of converting electricity into light — from the heated tungsten filaments that Thomas Edison perfected more than a century ago, to fluorescent tubes, to the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that power many display screens and are gaining favor for household lighting. But this new plasmon-based approach might eventually be part of more efficient, more compact, faster, and more tunable alternatives for certain applications, the researchers say.

Perhaps most significantly, this is a way of efficiently and controllably generating plasmons on a scale that is compatible with current microchip technology. Such graphene-based systems could potentially be key on-chip components for the creation of new, light-based circuits, which are considered a major new direction in the evolution of computing technology toward ever-smaller and more efficient devices, according to a statement from MIT.

The research was supported by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office, through the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT. The team included researchers Yichen Shen, Ognjen Ilic, and Josue Lopez at MIT; Yaniv Katan at Technion, in Haifa, Israel; Hrvoje Buljan at the University of Zagreb in Croatia; and Liang Jie Wong at the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology.

[Image courtesy: MIT]