Microscopic crystals in tantalum disulfide have a starring role in what could become a hit for 3D displays, virtual reality and even self-driving vehicles. A two-dimensional array of the material has unique optical characteristics that can be controlled in ambient conditions and under general illumination.

When a two-dimensional sliver of a bulk sample is pulled out (with that tried-and-true tool, adhesive tape) and light is shined on it, the layered material rearranges the charge density waves of electrons that flow through, altering its refractive index. Light emitted along the affected axis changes its color depending on the strength of the light that goes in.

“We need an optical material that can change the refractive index for applications like virtual reality, 3D displays, optical computers and LiDAR, which is necessary for autonomous vehicles,” said Gururaj Naik, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “At the same time, it has to be fast. Only then can we enable these new technologies.”

Tantalum disulfide, a semiconducting, layered compound with a prismatic metal center, appears to fit the bill. The material is already known for harboring charge density waves at room temperature that allow adjustments to its electrical conductivity, but the strength of light input also changes its refractive index, which quantifies the speed at which light travels through, so that makes it tunable.

When exposed to light, the tantalum layer reorganizes into a lattice of 12-atom stars, like the Star of David or sheriff’s badges, that facilitate charge density waves. How these stars are stacked determines whether the compound is insulating or metallic along its c-axis. That also determines its refractive index. Light triggers the stars to realign, changing the charge density waves enough to affect the material’s optical constants.

This belongs to a class of what are called strongly correlated materials, which means the electrons strongly interact with each other. That means the properties that show a strong response to some external stimulus can be predicted.

That the stimulus is as mild as ambient white light is a plus, according to the researchers. This is the first material they’ve seen where the interaction of light happens not just with single particles, but with a collection of particles together, at room temperature. The phenomenon appears to work in tantalum disulfide as thin as 10 nanometers and as thick as a millimeter.

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