Science & Tech

Light propagates via wires more slender than its own wavelength

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Super-thin nanowires could yield optical chips, sensors for biological and chemical molecules

A research team led by Harvard’s Eric Mazur and Limin Tong, a visiting professor from Zhejiang University in China, reported on their work with nanowires in the Dec. 18, 2003 issue of the journal Nature. “You wouldn’t normally imagine that a baseball could pass through a garden hose, but these nanowires appear able to handle exactly that kind of wide load,” says Mazur, Harvard College professor, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, and professor of physics. “In some cases light is propagating along wires just one-third the width of its own wavelength. It’s almost as if the wire serves as a rail to guide the light rather than funneling it in the traditional sense.” The wires could aid in the development of optical chips that operate more rapidly and efficiently than today’s electronic chips. The tiny structures could also be used to manipulate cells and other microscopic objects. The wires are so fine that they could poke into a cell or a droplet of liquid without disrupting them, yet are extremely sturdy – several times stronger than spider silk, one of the gold standards in the world of materials.