Research Article

Shrinking light to allow forbidden transitions on the atomic scale

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Science  15 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6296, pp. 263-269
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6308

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Making the forbidden allowed

Spontaneous emission, in which an excited electron lowers its energy by emitting a photon, is a fundamental process in light-matter interactions. In principle, the electron can relax from the excited state to any unoccupied lower energy level. In practice, however, most of these transitions are too slow and so are effectively forbidden. Rivera et al. show theoretically that the plasmonic excitations associated with two-dimensional materials can be used to enhance and control the light-matter interaction. Transitions that were once considered forbidden can thus be accessed, opening up the entire spectrum of an optical emitter.

Science, this issue p. 263


The diversity of light-matter interactions accessible to a system is limited by the small size of an atom relative to the wavelength of the light it emits, as well as by the small value of the fine-structure constant. We developed a general theory of light-matter interactions with two-dimensional systems supporting plasmons. These plasmons effectively make the fine-structure constant larger and bridge the size gap between atom and light. This theory reveals that conventionally forbidden light-matter interactions—such as extremely high-order multipolar transitions, two-plasmon spontaneous emission, and singlet-triplet phosphorescence processes—can occur on very short time scales comparable to those of conventionally fast transitions. Our findings may lead to new platforms for spectroscopy, sensing, and broadband light generation, a potential testing ground for quantum electrodynamics (QED) in the ultrastrong coupling regime, and the ability to take advantage of the full electronic spectrum of an emitter.

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