Creating compact and efficient electro-optic modulators for free space

Researchers have developed a compact and high-speed electro-optic modulator for free space applications that modulates light at gigahertz speed.

Electro-optic modulators, which control aspects of light in response to electrical signals, are essential for everything, from sensing to metrology and telecommunications. Currently, the majority of research into these modulators is focused on applications that take place on chips or within fibre optic systems. However, what about optical applications outside the wire and off the chip, like distance sensing in vehicles?

Current technologies used to modulate light in free space are bulky, slow, static, or inefficient. As a result, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), in collaboration with researchers at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Washington, have developed a compact and efficient electro-optic modulator for free space applications that can modulate light at gigahertz speed.

Free-space electro-optic modulators

“Our work is the first step toward a class of free-space electro-optic modulators that provide compact and efficient intensity modulation at gigahertz speed of free-space beams at telecom wavelengths,” explained Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering.

The research has been published in Nature Communications.

Flat, compact metasurfaces are ideal platforms for controlling light in free space. Although, the majority of metasurfaces are static, meaning they cannot switch on and off, which is a key functionality for modulators. Some active metasurfaces can effectively modulate light, but only at low speeds of just a few megahertz.

For applications, such as sensing or free-space communications, you need short, fast bursts of light, on the scale of gigahertz.

electro-optic modulators
The modulator consists of a thin layer of an organic electro-optic material (green) deposited on top of a metasurface etched with sub-wavelength resonators integrated with microwave electronics (gold). (Credit: Capasso Lab/Harvard SEAS)

High-speed electro-optic modulators

The high-speed modulator, developed by Capasso and his team, brings together metasurface resonators with high-performance organic electro-optical materials and high-frequency electronic design to efficiently modulate the intensity of light in free space.

The modulator consists of a thin layer of an organic electro-optic material deposited on top of a metasurface that is etched with sub-wavelength resonators and integrated with microwave electronics. When a microwave field is applied to the electro-optical material, its refractive index changes, altering the intensity of light that is being transmitted by the metasurface in a matter of nanoseconds.

“With this design, we can now modulate light 100 to 1,000 times faster than previously,” said Ileana-Cristina Benea-Chelmus, a Research Associate in the Capasso Lab, and first author of the paper. “This speed advance opens new possibilities in computing or communications and the tunability of the metasurface opens up a vast application space for custom-tailored, ultracompact photonics that may in the future be deposited onto any nanoscale free-space optical product.”

Following this, the researchers intend to see if they can modulate light even faster and, by changing the design of the metasurface, modulate other aspects of light, such as phase or polarisation.

The Harvard Office of Technology Development has protected the intellectual property associated with this project.

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