Switching at the Speed of Light: Harnessing Nanoseconds to Picoseconds in Revolutionary Bi-Material Optical Switches


Optical switches operate by modifying the optical properties of materials, specifically their dielectric permittivity, through light interactions. Previous works have explored various means to modulate permittivity, such as electrical, thermal, and optical methods. The speed of these changes, governed by the material’s relaxation mechanisms, significantly influences the device’s operational efficacy. In the realm of nonlinear optics, materials like transparent conducting oxides (TCOs) have been employed for their rapid permittivity modulation capabilities. The concept of epsilon-near-zero (ENZ) materials has been pivotal in enhancing these nonlinear optical phenomena, as these materials exhibit strong light-matter interactions due to significant field enhancements at the ENZ point.

In a new study published in Nature Communications Led by Professor Alexandra Boltasseva from the Purdue University and conducted by Soham Saha, Benjamin Diroll, Mustafa Goksu Ozlu, Sarah Chowdhury, Samuel Peana, Zhaxylyk Kudyshev, Richard Schaller, Zubin Jacob, Vladimir Shalaev, and Alexander Kildishev developed a bi-material switch that can dynamically control its response time by exploiting the light-matter interactions in different materials. The materials in question are titanium nitride (TiN) and Aluminum-doped zinc oxide (AZO), each having distinct properties when it comes to interacting with light.

The team chose TiN and AZO for their differing response times to light interaction. TiN exhibits a nanosecond response time, while AZO responds in the picosecond range. They developed a double-layer resonator comprising a 130-nm-thick TiN layer and a 250-nm-thick AZO layer. The thicknesses were optimized to leverage the unique ENZ properties of both materials. The researchers employed a pump-probe spectroscopy method to investigate the dynamic responses of the individual layers (TiN and AZO) and the combined TiN-AZO structure. They used a 325-nm-wavelength optical pump to excite electrons in both TiN and AZO, observing how this affected the reflectance and transmission properties of the materials.

The TiN layer showed a nanosecond-range response, aligning with previous studies on its carrier dynamics and lattice cooling processes. The AZO layer demonstrated a much faster response, with a relaxation time of less than 10 picoseconds, attributed mainly to defect-assisted Shockley-Read-Hall recombination mechanisms. In the TiN-AZO resonator, the response time varied depending on the probe wavelength used. At visible wavelengths, where the probe light interacted predominantly with TiN, the switch operated at a nanosecond scale. This was attributed to the slower carrier dynamics of TiN. At near-infrared wavelengths, where the interaction was primarily with AZO, the switch operated on a picosecond scale, demonstrating the faster dynamics of AZO.

The researchers established that by varying the wavelength of the probe light, they could control the switching speed of the device. This adjustment allowed for a range of operational speeds from gigahertz to terahertz regimes. The study also noted that the switching speed at a particular wavelength was dictated by the material with the stronger light-matter interaction at that wavelength.

The new approach allows for the development of all-optical switches with tunable response times, a significant advancement for various applications in optical computing and telecommunications. The findings emphasize the importance of understanding light-matter interactions in multilayer structures, potentially leading to more efficient and versatile optical devices. In summary, the research conducted by Professor Boltasseva and her team represents a notable advancement in optical switch technology. By leveraging the unique properties of TiN and AZO, they have demonstrated a method to dynamically control the response time of an all-optical switch, opening up new possibilities in the realm of high-speed optical communications and computing.

All-optical switches, traditionally, have a fixed switching time. The new research, however, demonstrates that the response time of these switches can be dynamically controlled by manipulating the light-matter interaction in what the study terms as ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ materials. The study’s novelty lies in its bi-material switch that employs TiN and AZO, each exhibiting different interaction times with light – from nanoseconds in TiN to picoseconds in AZO. The authors successfully introduced a dual-active-material structure combining TiN and AZO, each with distinct ENZ properties. The team’s approach to controlling the temporal dynamics involves leveraging the different relaxation times of these materials, resulting in a device that can operate across a broad range of speeds – from gigahertz to terahertz regimes. The study’s experimental setup includes a TiN-AZO resonator with specific thicknesses for each layer, optimized to achieve the desired switching speeds. The device is probed at different wavelengths, demonstrating that at visible wavelengths, where the probe interacts predominantly with TiN, the switching speed is slower. In contrast, at near-infrared wavelengths, where the interaction is primarily with AZO, the switching speed significantly increases.

The pump-probe experiments reveal the dynamic behavior of the TiN-AZO resonator. At visible wavelengths, the reflectance modulation occurs at nanosecond timescales, dominated by the slower carrier dynamics of TiN. As the wavelength increases, the switching speed accelerates, reaching picosecond timescales at near-infrared wavelengths, in line with AZO’s faster dynamics. This modulation in switching speeds is attributed to the varying degrees of light-matter interaction with TiN and AZO at different probe wavelengths.

The study’s findings open up new possibilities for designing all-optical switches with tunable response times. This capability is crucial for applications in optical computing and multiband data transmission, where different operational speeds are often required. Additionally, the research underscores the importance of a comprehensive understanding of the material dynamics in multi-layered optical devices. Future research could explore the integration of other materials with distinct temporal dynamics, further expanding the operational bandwidth of these switches. Additionally, this approach could lead to advancements in other areas of photonics and telecommunications, bridging the gap between ultrafast optical and slower electronic systems.

Switching at the Speed of Light: Harnessing Nanoseconds to Picoseconds in Revolutionary Bi-Material Optical Switches - Advances in Engineering
Image Credit: Nature Communications. 2023 ;14(1):5877. doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-41377-5.

About the author

Prof. Alexandra Boltasseva

Ron And Dotty Garvin Tonjes Distinguished Professor Of Electrical and Computer Engineering / Courtesy Appointment in Materials Engineering – Purdue University

Prof. A. Boltasseva’s team specializes in nano- and quantum photonics, plasmonics, optical metamaterials, optical materials, and nanofabrication. The central theme of Boltasseva’s research is finding new ways for the discovery, realization, and machine-learning-assisted optimization of nanophotonic structures – from material growth to advanced photonic designs and device demonstrations. Prof. Boltasseva’s team aims at developing new platforms to unlock properties of nanophotonic structures in previously unavailable designs and wavelength regimes and to enable new generations of low-loss, tunable, reconfigurable, semiconductor-compatible devices for applications in on-chip circuitry, information processing, data recording/storage, sensing, medical imaging and therapy, energy conversion and quantum information technologies.


Saha S, Diroll BT, Ozlu MG, Chowdhury SN, Peana S, Kudyshev Z, Schaller RD, Jacob Z, Shalaev VM, Kildishev AV, Boltasseva A. Engineering the temporal dynamics of all-optical switching with fast and slow materials. Nat Commun. 2023 ;14(1):5877. doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-41377-5.

Go to Nat Commun.

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