This novel structure produces uniquely shaped light and is only one quarter of a millimeter squared in size. (Image: Nathan Liu)

The novel structure shown in the illustration was designed to do one thing: change the shape of light as it is transported. In a recent paper, Professor Mercedeh Khajavikhan and her team showed how this can be done by using a new theoretical model that could have profound implications for many aspects of our lives.

Light can be generated by lasers for imaging and sensing, run through fiber optic cables for advanced communications, and built into chips to increase computing capabilities to a level earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of. Although each of these advances may have ended with a new device built by a mechanical, astronautical, biomedical, or computer engineer, they got their start in photonics.

Light particles tend to move as waves, and photonics is the science of harnessing those waves. From cutting-edge experiments of quantum communication with entangled photons, to everyday technologies like smartphone screens, LiDAR, and fiber internet, photonics has changed our lives more than most people realize. And even though the field has been around for over a century, researchers are still pushing into new frontiers.

One of these frontiers is called topological photonics. It combines traditional photonics with topological physics — a field pioneered in part by Nobel Prize winner and former USC Professor Duncan Haldane. Topological physics — the mathematical study of shapes and their arrangement in space — has been used to explain many interesting properties in electronics and has led to the development of several new materials and devices. Now, by combining topological physics and photonics, researchers can engineer even more creative and never-before-seen light structures.

So, what is so special about this new structure and how did they build it? The team first uses topological physics to come up with a design they want to explore. They then run simulations to understand how the elements in the structure should interact with each other. Next, they design the individual cells — the little building blocks that make up the whole structure.

Once the cell design is complete, they must decide how they should be arranged together to form the structure. Finally, the design is taken to a nano-fabrication clean room where the physical product — less than 0.25 square millimeter in size — is built. What we are left with is a totally unique structure that forms light into a novel shape when it flows through. This new shape, in turn, has new qualities, such as better lasing purity and higher efficiency.

As impressive as that is, Khajavikhan and her team decided to go even further. And this is where that combination of physics and photonics really comes into play. Topological materials can exhibit amazing new transport properties, but they cannot easily be switched between an “on” and “off” state. Think about these light structures like a state- of-the-art race car. They can move faster, turn harder, and do more than their competitors. But if you can’t ever turn the car off once you’ve started the engine, it’s not a very practical piece of machinery.

That’s exactly what the USC team was able to do — control this new light. They introduced a technique from photonic systems called “optical pumping” to give the topological properties of the structure the ability to turn on and off. The ability to control not just the shape of light, but when and how it flows through a system is of utmost importance.

For the researchers, the work on this new structure is only just the beginning. “Our findings open up completely new avenues to study topological systems and we plan on engineering more designs that could change the face of a whole host of industries such as holographic screens and high-power lasers,” said Khajavikhan.

For more information, contact Amy Blumenthal at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..