Molecular device turns infrared into visible light

Published on December 3, 2021
Category Photonic Forces
A gold nanoparticle in a groove focuses infrared radiation into a nanometer-thick gap, where vibrating molecules convert it to visible light. Illustration by Nicolas Antille

Researchers at EPFL, China, Spain and AMOLF have built a micro-device that uses vibrating molecules to transform invisible mid-infrared light into visible light. The breakthrough ushers in a new class of compact sensors for thermal imaging and chemical or biological analysis. The team publishes their findings in Science.

Light is an electromagnetic wave: it consists of oscillating electric and magnetic fields propagating through space. Every wave is characterized by its frequency, which refers to the number of oscillations per second, measured in Hertz (Hz). Our eyes can detect frequencies between 400 and 750 trillion Hz (or terahertz, THz), which define the visible spectrum. Light sensors in cell phone cameras can detect frequencies down to 300 THz, while detectors used for internet connections through optical fibers are sensitive to around 200 THz.

At lower frequencies, the energy transported by light isn’t enough to trigger photoreceptors in our eyes and in many other sensors, which is a problem given that there is rich information available at frequencies below 100 THz, the mid- and far-infrared spectrum. For example, a body with surface temperature of 20°C emits infrared light up to 10 THz, which can be “seen” with thermal imaging. Also, chemical and biological substances feature distinct absorption bands in the mid-infrared, meaning that we can identify them remotely and non-destructively by infrared spectroscopy, which has myriads of applications.

Turning infrared into visible light
Three years ago, scientists from four countries started the European research program THOR, with the goal to develop a new way to detect infrared light by changing its frequency to that of visible light. They now report the first demonstrations of this principle in two publications in Science. The devices they developed extend the “sight” of commonly available and highly sensitive detectors for visible light far into the infrared.

Frequency conversion is not an easy task. The frequency of light is a fundamental that cannot change by reflecting light on a surface or passing it through a material because that would violate the law of energy conservation. The researchers worked around this by adding energy to infrared light with a mediator: tiny vibrating molecules. The infrared light is directed to the molecules where it is converted into vibrational energy. Simultaneously, a laser beam of higher frequency impinges on the same molecules to provide the extra energy and convert the vibration into visible light. To boost the conversion process the molecules are sandwiched between metallic nanostructures that act as optical antennas by concentrating the infrared light and laser energy at the molecules.

A new light
The new device has a number of appealing features, as lead scientist Christophe Galland (EPFL) points out: “First, the conversion process is coherent, meaning that all information present in the original infrared light is faithfully mapped onto the newly created visible light. It allows high-resolution infrared spectroscopy to be performed with standard detectors like those found in cell-phone cameras. Second, each device is about a few micrometers in length and width, which means it can be incorporated into large pixel arrays. Finally, the method is highly versatile and can be adapted to different frequencies by simply choosing molecules with different vibrational modes.” So far, the light-conversion efficiency of these first devices is still very low. Improving it is thus the logical next step, and key toward commercial application.

One of the researchers involved in the project is AMOLF group leader Ewold Verhagen (Photonic Forces). Looking back, he says: “The THOR program brought together researchers from nanophotonics, chemistry, and quantum physics. We were dreaming of using the mechanisms that the field of cavity optomechanics had discovered to control molecular vibrations and enable a new functionality. It is very exciting to see the envisioned effects so clearly for the first time. To us, it is the stepping stone to many new possibilities in science and technology, which at AMOLF we continue to explore together with the group of Femius Koenderink.”

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Wuhan Institute of Technology
Valencia Polytechnic University
Friedrich Schiller University Jena

Wen Chen, Philippe Roelli, Huatian Hu, Sachin Verlekar, Sakthi Priya Amirtharaj, Angela I. Barreda, Tobias J. Kippenberg, Miroslavna Kovylina, Ewold Verhagen, Alejandro Martínez, Christophe Galland, Continuous-Wave Frequency Upconversion with a Molecular Optomechanical Nanocavity, Science, 374, 1264-1267, (2021).