Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences together with Innovation Center Iceland have explored what astrophysics, telecommunications, and pharmacology have in common – polarimeter, and building the same on a microchip with the aim of changing the design and manner of using microchips.
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A polarimeter is an instrument that detects the direction of the oscillation of electromagnetic waves, which is also known as the polarization of light. Polarization is the fundamental property of light even though the human eye cannot detect it; but it is generated when light reflects off or scatters off an object, a phenomenon that causes the polarization of the light to change, yielding a lot of information about the light.
Astrophysicists usually measure polarization in order to analyze the surface of distant planets or to map the magnetic fields within our galaxy. Pharmacologists use polarization measurements to unveil the chirality and concentration of drug molecules. And communication engineers use polarization to determine how information is carried via vast networks of fiber optic cables.
Considering the fact that polarization is used to measure critical data, it is expensive and bulky to run; but the researchers designed it and built it onto a microchip to revolutionize how it can be used for scientific purposes.
"We have taken an instrument that can reach the size of a lab bench and shrunk it down to the size of a chip," said Federico Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering, who led the research. "Having a microchip polarimeter will make polarization measurements available for the first time to a much broader range of applications, including in energy-efficient, portable devices."
J.P. Balthasar Mueller, a graduate student in the Capasso lab and author of the paper noted that “taking advantage of integrated circuit technology and nanophotonics, the new device promises high-performance polarization measurements at a fraction of the cost and size.”
Published in the journal Optica, patent for the polarization device has been filed by the Harvard’s Office of Technology Development while the office continues to look into how the device could be commercially viable for the technology industry.
Considering its use in telecommunications, optical signals spreading via fibers will now transform their polarization in random manners, since the integrated photonic chips in fiber optic cables are very sensitive to polarization because loss of signals result if light happens to reach a chip with the wrong polarization.
"The design of the antenna array make it robust and insensitive to the inaccuracies in the fabrication process, which is ideal for large scale manufacturing," said Kristjan Leosson, senior researcher and division manager at the Innovation Center and coauthor of the paper.
And Capasso added that the chip is smaller than any major polarimeter in the market while performing equally well. "A portable, compact polarimeter could become an important tool for not only the telecommunications industry but also in drug manufacturing, medical imaging, chemistry, astronomy, you name it. The applications are endless," he said.