ReviewQuantum Materials

Polaritons in van der Waals materials

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Science  14 Oct 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6309, aag1992
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag1992

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Structured Abstract


Light trapped at the nanoscale, deep below the optical wavelength, exhibits an increase in the associated electric field strength, which results in enhanced light-matter interaction. This leads to strong nonlinearities, large photonic forces, and enhanced emission and absorption probabilities. A practical approach toward nanoscale light trapping and manipulation is offered by interfaces separating media with permittivities of opposite signs. Such interfaces sustain hybrid light-matter modes involving collective oscillations of polarization charges in matter, hence the term polaritons. Surface plasmon polaritons, supported by electrons in metals, constitute a most-studied prominent example. Yet there are many other varieties of polaritons, including those formed by atomic vibrations in polar insulators, excitons in semiconductors, Cooper pairs in superconductors, and spin resonances in (anti)ferromagnets. Together, they span a broad region of the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from microwave to ultraviolet wavelengths. We discuss polaritons in van der Waals (vdW) materials: layered systems in which individual atomic planes are bonded by weak vdW attraction (see the figure). This class of quantum materials includes graphene and other two-dimensional crystals. In artificial structures assembled from dissimilar vdW atomic layers, polaritons associated with different constituents can interact to produce unique optical effects by design.


vdW materials host a full suite of different polaritonic modes with the highest degree of confinement among all known materials. Advanced near-field imaging methods allow the polaritonic waves to be launched and visualized as they travel along vdW layers or through multilayered heterostructures. Spectroscopic and nanoimaging experiments have identified multiple routes toward manipulation of nano-optical phenomena endowed by polaritons. A virtue of polaritons in vdW systems is their electrical tunability. Furthermore, in heterostructures assembled from dissimilar vdW layers, different brands of polaritons interact with each other, thus enabling unparalleled control of polaritonic response at the level of single atomic planes. New optoelectronic device concepts aimed at the detection, harvesting, emission, propagation, and modulation of light are becoming feasible as a result of combined synthesis, nanofabrication, and modeling of vdW systems. The extreme anisotropy of vdW systems leading to opposite signs of the in-plane and out-of-plane permittivities of the same layered crystal enables efficient polaritonic waveguides, which are instrumental for subdiffractional focusing and imaging. In addition to near-field optical probes facilitating nanoimaging, coupling to polaritons can be accomplished via electrical excitation and nonlinear wave mixing.


Potential outcomes of polariton exploration in vdW heterostructures go beyond nano-optical technologies. In particular, images of polaritonic standing and traveling waves contain rich insights into quantum phenomena occurring in the host material supporting polaritons. This line of inquiry into fundamental physics through polaritonic observations constitutes an approach toward optics-based materials research. In particular, the strong spatial confinement exhibited by vdW polaritons involves large optical-field gradients—or equivalently, large momenta—which allows regions of the dispersion relations of electrons, phonons, and other condensed-matter excitations to be accessed beyond what is currently possible with conventional optics. Additionally, polaritons created by short and intense laser pulses add femtosecond resolution to the study of these phenomena. Alongside future advances in the understanding of the physics and interactions of vdW polaritons, solutions to application challenges may be anticipated in areas such as loss compensation, nanoscale lasing, quantum optics, and nanomanipulation. The field of vdW polaritonics is ripe for exploring genuinely unique physical scenarios and exploiting these new phenomena in technology.

Polaritons in van der Waals (vdW) materials.

Polaritons—a hybrid of light-matter oscillations—can originate in different physical phenomena: conduction electrons in graphene and topological insulators (surface plasmon polaritons), infrared-active phonons in boron nitride (phonon polaritons), excitons in dichalcogenide materials (exciton polaritons), superfluidity in FeSe- and Cu-based superconductors with high critical temperature Tc (Cooper-pair polaritons), and magnetic resonances (magnon polaritons). The family of vdW materials supports all of these polaritons. The matter oscillation component results in negative permittivity (εB < 0) of the polaritonic material, giving rise to optical-field confinement at the interface with a positive-permittivity (εA > 0) environment. vdW polaritons exhibit strong confinement, as defined by the ratio of incident light wavelength λ0 to polariton wavelength λp.

van der Waals (vdW) materials consist of individual atomic planes bonded by weak vdW attraction. They display nearly all optical phenomena found in solids, including plasmonic oscillations of free electrons characteristic of metals, light emission/lasing and excitons encountered in semiconductors, and intense phonon resonances typical of insulators. These phenomena are embodied in confined light-matter hybrid modes termed polaritons—excitations of polarizable media, which are classified according to the origin of the polarization. The most studied varieties are plasmon, phonon, and exciton polaritons. In vdW materials, polaritons exhibit extraordinary properties that are directly affected by dimensionality and topology, as revealed by state-of-the-art imaging of polaritonic waves. vdW heterostructures provide unprecedented control over the polaritonic response, enabling new quantum phenomena and nanophotonics applications.

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