Light detection is well known and relatively simple. Silicon generates electrical current when illuminated and is common in solar panels and light sensors today. The Stanford device, however, is a departure in that for the first time it uses a relatively new concept known as plasmonic cloaking to render the device invisible.
The field of plasmonics studies how light interacts with metal nanostructures and induces tiny oscillating electrical currents along the surfaces of the metal and the semiconductor. These currents, in turn, produce scattered light waves. By carefully designing their device — by tuning the geometries — the engineers have created a plasmonic cloak in which the scattered light from the metal and semiconductor cancel each other perfectly through a phenomenon known as destructive interference.
The rippling light waves in the metal and semiconductor create a separation of positive and negative charges in the materials — a dipole moment, in technical terms. The key is to create a dipole in the gold that is equal in strength but opposite in sign to the dipole in the silicon.
When equally strong positive and negative dipoles meet, they cancel each other and the system becomes invisible. “We found that a carefully engineered gold shell dramatically alters the optical response of the silicon nanowire,” said Fan. “Light absorption in the wire drops slightly — by a factor of just four — but the scattering of light drops by 100 times due to the cloaking effect, becoming invisible.”
“It seems counterintuitive,” said Brongersma, “but you can cover a semiconductor with metal — even one as reflective as gold — and still have the light get through to the silicon. As we show, the metal not only allows the light to reach the silicon where we can detect the current generated, but it makes the wire invisible, too.”