By IQT News posted 25 Oct 2021

(Phys.org) Light plays a critical role in enabling 21st century quantum information applications. For example, scientists use laser light to precisely control atoms, turning them into ultra-sensitive measures of time, acceleration, and even gravity. Currently, such early quantum technology is limited by size — state-of-the-art systems would not fit on a dining room table, let alone a chip. For practical use, scientists and engineers need to miniaturize quantum devices, which requires re-thinking certain components for harnessing light.
Now IQUIST member Gaurav Bahl and his research group have designed a simple, compact photonic circuit that uses sound waves to rein in light. The new study, published the journal Nature Photonics, demonstrates a powerful way to isolate, or control the directionality of light. The team’s measurements show that their approach to isolation currently outperforms all previous on-chip alternatives and is optimized for compatibility with atom-based sensors.
“Atoms are the perfect references anywhere in nature and provide a basis for many quantum applications,” said Bahl, a professor in Mechanical Science and Engineering (MechSe) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The lasers that we use to control atoms need isolators that block undesirable reflections. But so far the isolators that work well in large-scale experiments have proved tough to miniaturize.”
Bahl’s team demonstrated a new non-magnetic isolator that turns out to be simple in design, uses common optical materials, and is easily adaptable for different wavelengths of light.
“We wanted to design a device that naturally avoids loss, and the best way to do that is to have light propagate through nothing. The simplest bit of ‘nothing’ that can still guide photons along a controlled path is a waveguide, which is a very basic component in photonic circuits,” said Bahl.
That is only the first half of the design because for isolation, the light must be simultaneously blocked in the opposite direction.
The team’s measurements revealed that nearly every photon moves through the waveguide in the forward direction, while having only one-in-ten-thousand chance of making it through backwards. This means that the design reduced losses, or undesirable light absorption, to nearly zero, which has been a long-standing problem with previous on-chip isolators. The data show that the new devices exhibit record-breaking performance for on-chip isolation and operate as well as the larger magnet-based devices. In addition, the approach is flexible and can used for multiple wavelengths without changing the starting material.

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