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In an effort to create smaller, faster, and efficient electronics, the field of nanoelectronics is continually looking to decrease size. Using photons to transmit data is a technique used by many advanced devices, however, those elements aren’t keen on miniaturization. This limits nanoelectronic systems utilizing photonics in design.

To find a similar solution, nanoelectronic researchers looked to plasmons. When photons hit a metal surface, plasmons are the resulting wave of electrons. They make ideal photonic substitutes, since they also travel with the speed of light and are smaller in size. Despite the intrigue, data-carrying plasmons have yielded little progress.

Aiming to break the past plasmon trend, a National University of Singapore (NUS) research team has developed a novel “converter” to harness the element for high-frequency data transmission and processing.

"This innovative transducer can directly convert electrical signals into plasmonic signals, and vice versa, in a single step. By bridging plasmonics and nanoscale electronics, we can potentially make chips run faster and reduce power losses,” says Associate Professor Christian Nijhuis from the Department of Chemistry at the NUS Faculty of Science, and leader of the research.

“Our plasmonic-electronic transducer is about 10,000 times smaller than optical elements. We believe it can be readily integrated into existing technologies and can potentially be used in a wide range of applications in the future," Nijhuis adds.

Generally, plasmon excitement is a two-step process. Light is first generated by the electron, which is then used to excited the plasmons. According to the NUS team, the traditional method was riddled with inefficiency and proved too time-consuming for nanoelectronic integration.

The researchers condensed the technique into one single step, known as “tunneling,” by removing a light source from the equation. The revised process relies on electrons traveling between electrodes, thus exciting the plasmons.

“Based on our lab experiments, the electron-to-plasmon conversion has an efficiency of more than 10 percent, more than 1,000 times higher than previously reported," says Nijhuis.

Currently, four patents were filed for the invention. Future goals include maintaining operation at higher frequencies by further reducing size, and combining plasmonic waveguides with transducers to increase performance.  

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