Nanophotonics researchers pursue a very wide variety of goals, in fields ranging from biochemistry to electrical engineering. A few of these goals are summarized below.
Optoelectronics and microelectronics
Photodetectors: If light can be squeezed into a small volume, it can be absorbed and detected by a small detector. Small detectors tend have a variety of desirable properties including low noise, high speed, and low voltage and power.
Photolithography: Integrated circuits are made using photolithography, i.e. exposure to light. In order to make very small transistors, the light needs to be focused into extremely sharp images. Using various techniques such as immersion lithography and phase-shifting photomasks, it has indeed been possible to make images much finer than the wavelength—for example, drawing 30 nm lines using 193 nm light. Plasmonic techniques have also been proposed for this application.
Heat-assisted magnetic recording: This is a nanophotonic approach to increasing the amount of data that a magnetic disk drive can store. It requires a laser to heat a tiny, subwavelength area of the magnetic material before writing data. The magnetic write-head would have metal optical components to concentrate light at the right location.
Miniaturization in optoelectronics: The miniaturization of transistors in integrated circuits has improved their speed and cost. However, optoelectronic circuits can only be miniaturized if the optical components are shrunk along with the electronic components. This is relevant for on-chip optical communication (i.e. passing information from one part of a microchip to another by sending light through optical waveguides, instead of changing the voltage on a wire).
Solar cells often work best when the light is absorbed very close to the surface, both because electrons near the surface have a better chance of being collected, and because the device can be made thinner, which reduces cost. Researchers have investigated a variety of nanophotonic techniques to intensify light in the optimal locations within a solar cell.
Using nanophotonics to create high peak intensities: If a given amount of light energy is squeezed into a smaller and smaller volume ("hot-spot"), the intensity in the hot-spot gets larger and larger. This is especially helpful in nonlinear optics; an example is surface enhanced Raman scattering. It also allows sensitive spectroscopy measurements of even single molecules located in the hot-spot, unlike traditional spectroscopy methods which take an average over millions or billions of molecules.
Superlens: One goal of nanophotonics is to construct a so-called "superlens", which would use metamaterials (see below) or other techniques to create images that are more accurate than the diffraction limit (deep subwavelength).
Near-field scanning optical microscope (NSOM or SNOM): This is a quite different nanophotonic technique that accomplishes the same goal of taking images with resolution far smaller than the wavelength. It involves raster-scanning a very sharp tip or very small aperture over the surface to be imaged.
Near-field microscopy: This refers more generally to any technique using the near-field (see below) to achieve nanoscale, subwavelength resolution. For example, dual polarisation interferometry has picometer resolution in the vertical plane above the waveguide surface.
Metals are an effective way to confine light to far below the wavelength. This was originally used in radio and microwave engineering, where metal antennas and waveguides may be hundreds of times smaller than the free-space wavelength. For a similar reason, visible light can be confined to the nano-scale via nano-sized metal structures, such as nano-sized structures, tips, gaps, etc. This effect is somewhat analogous to a lightning rod, where the field concentrates at the tip.
This effect is fundamentally based on the fact that the permittivity of the metal is very large and negative. At very high frequencies (near and above the plasma frequency, usually ultraviolet), the permittivity of a metal is not so large, and the metal stops being useful for concentrating fields.
Many nano-optics designs look like common microwave or radiowave circuits, but shrunk down by a factor of 100,000 or more. After all, radiowaves, microwaves, and visible light are all electromagnetic radiation; they differ only in frequency. So other things equal, a microwave circuit shrunk down by a factor of 100,000 will behave the same way but at 100,000 times higher frequency. For example, researchers have made nano-optical Yagi-Uda antennas following essentially the same design as used for radio Yagi-Uda antennas. That said, there are a number of very important differences between nano-optics and scaled-down microwave circuits. For example, at optical frequency, metals behave much less like ideal conductors, and also exhibit interesting plasmon-related effects like kinetic inductance and surface plasmon resonance. Likewise, optical fields interact with semiconductors in a fundamentally different way than microwaves do.
When light is emitted by such an object, the light with very high spatial frequency forms an evanescent wave, which only exists in the near field (very close to the object, within a wavelength or two) and disappears in the far field. This is the origin of the diffraction limit, which says that when a lens images an object, the subwavelength information is blurred out.
Nano-photonics is primarily concerned with the near-field evanescent waves. For example, a superlens (mentioned above) would prevent the decay of the evanescent wave, allowing higher-resolution imaging.
Metamaterials are artificial materials engineered to have properties that may not be found in nature. They are created by fabricating an array of structures much smaller than a wavelength. The small (nano) size of the structures is important: That way, light interacts with them as if they made up a uniform, continuous medium, rather than scattering off the individual structures.
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