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Engineering Students Harness Sounds to Bend Light on Chips

As you know, the speed of sound is significantly slower than the speed of light. That’s why when you see a plane, it takes a little longer for you to actually hear it. Then, is it possible for sound and light to exist in the same space?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered a way to do just that. In a recently published paper in Nature Communications, the team revealed that they have created a chip where sound waves and light waves can be created and confined together. Thus, the sound is able to control the light waves on the chip.

“Our breakthrough is to integrate optical circuits in the same layer of material with acoustic devices in order to attain extreme strong interaction between light and sound waves,” said Mo Li, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The chip is made with a silicon base, and then a layer of aluminum nitride is applied. This conducts an electrical charge. The team then applied alternating current to the chip, which causes the material to deform slightly, and creates sound waves.

This technology could be used to improve wireless communication, and there are also applications where this could be used in quantum physics. Further research is being conducted and is being funded by National Science Foundation and Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Semere Tadesse, a graduate student in the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy and the first author of the paper, stated, “What’s remarkable is that at this high frequency, the wavelength of the sound is even shorter than the wavelength of light. This is achieved for the first time on a chip. In this unprecedented regime, sound can interact with light most efficiently to achieve high-speed modulation.”

For engineering students, this is further proof that with a little ingenuity and some hard work, amazing advances can be made. These advances have the potential to completely change the world as we know it and will lead to further advances and changes down the road.

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