Using an inexpensive inkjet printer, University of Utah electrical engineers produced microscopic structures that use light in metals to carry information. This new technique, which controls electrical conductivity within such microstructures, could be used to rapidly fabricate superfast components in electronic devices, make wireless technology faster or print magnetic materials.
High-speed Internet and other data-transfer techniques rely on light transported through optical fibers with very high bandwidth, which is a measure of how fast data can be transferred. Shrinking these fibers allows more data to be packed into less space, but there's a catch: optical fibers hit a limit on how much data they can carry as light is squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces.
In contrast, electronic circuits can be fashioned at much smaller sizes on silicon wafers. However, electronic data transfer operates at frequencies with much lower bandwidth, reducing the amount of data that can be carried.
A recently discovered technology called plasmonics marries the best aspects of optical and electronic data transfer. By crowding light into metal structures with dimensions far smaller than its wavelength, data can be transmitted at much higher frequencies such as terahertz frequencies, which lie between microwaves and infrared light on the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that also includes everything from X-rays to visible light to gamma rays. Metals such as silver and gold are particularly promising plasmonic materials because they enhance this crowding effect. "Very little well-developed technology exists to create terahertz plasmonic devices, which have the potential to make wireless devices such as Bluetooth -- which operates at 2.4 gigahertz frequency -- 1,000 times faster than they are today," says Ajay Nahata, a University of Utah professor of electrical and computer engineering and senior author of the new study.